Key West may be tiny, but she sure is mighty. And though the collective liver of Key West is historically gigantic (and shockingly resilient), it can’t compare to the size of our little island’s giant heart. In the weeks after Hurricane Irma, businesses opened their doors (and their walk-ins) to feed the residents and emergency workers who roved the electricity- and water- deficient streets, emptying their coffers at no cost to their beneficiaries.
During Fantasy Fest, candidates for King and Queen donate pretty much every one of their waking moments to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for A.H. of Monroe County. Every Thursday,
Mary Ellen’s Bar hosts vibrator races (yes, you read that right) for various charitable causes — a laughable concept, until you realize that those silly events have raised about $100,000 since they started. And from October to April every year, when the island is flush with snowbirds and tourists whose wallets are in turn flush with cash, the number of fundraisers, charitable balls, silent auctions, giving campaigns and charity 5k races is enough to make you want to hibernate until May.
But charitable giving isn’t all about glitzy galas and dollar signs. Sometimes, charity is more about personal connections that give people in need the time and space to regroup, recover and rediscover their hope and joy. That is the ethos of Little Pink Houses of Hope, an organization that empowers breast cancer patients and their families to live each day to the fullest and find the hope in their cancer journeys through free, week-long vacation retreats to beautiful towns like Key West.
When Little Pink Houses of Hope founder Jeanine Patten-Coble was diagnosed with breast cancer, she recognized firsthand how vital family time is to both the patient and her loved ones. Since 2011, Patten-Coble and her staff have provided retreats for over 600 families and Little Pink continues to grow. The organization operates nationwide, with outposts everywhere from Ocean City, Md. to Lake Tahoe, Cal. And the Key West arm is helmed by Retreat Coordinator Sharon Dickinson.
“As a Little Pink Houses of Hope Retreat Coordinator, I am a community liaison for Little Pink throughout the year,” Dickinson begins. “Myself and my team here (Team Pink) organize and secure donations for the retreat. We also help secure and keep track of in kind donations, which include housing, food, activities, welcome gifts and any other expenses to help provide for the retreats.”
For personal reasons, Dickinson has been devoted to the breast cancer cause for years, though her involvement with Little Pink Houses of Hope was little more than happenstance. “I got involved with Little Pink Houses of Hope four years ago as a Team Pink Volunteer,” Dickinson says. “Myself and a few friends were selling tamales at the Sunday Artisan Market under the name Ta Ta Tamales. We saved our tips from the season and wanted to donate them to a local breast cancer charity. I have a mother who is a breast cancer survivor and I also had a great friend here in Key West that passed at the age of 27 from breast cancer, so it is a cause that I really believe in helping. After doing some research, I stumbled upon some information about a Little Pink Houses of Hope retreat here in Key West. We donated the money, but also felt like we wanted to donate our time as well to help.”
A cancer diagnosis can be a devastating and isolating experience, but the Little Pink team believes that its signature retreat program allows affected families to connect with other families and use those connections to forge a strong support network.
“These week-long retreats give families on the breast cancer journey time to relax, reconnect and focus on living,” Dickinson explains. “We believe the diagnosis not only affects the patient, but the whole family. A breast cancer diagnosis takes time and money away from the family, so it can be a tough time. When the families get to their retreat destination, everything is taken care of for them. They can participate in as much or as little as they want. We try to provide memorable moments for the family. We believe our lives are measured in moments, and the defining moments are the ones that endure in our memories. We want to help them create these memorable moments, and unfortunately the reality of it all is sometimes this is the last family vacation.”
This year, the Key West retreat will take place from June 16-22 and the participants have a lot to look forward to. “We have a fun-packed week for the families, as well as finding the right balance of free time for them to enjoy the island as a family,” Dickinson says. “We shop for their breakfast and snacks and have them stocked up in their donated properties upon arrival. We usually have a morning activity like yoga, family day at Fort Zach, paddle boarding with Lazy Dog, snorkeling with Sunset Watersports or a Conch Tour train with Historic Tours of America, and a group luncheon together following the morning activities.
“Afternoons are usually up to the families. We provide them with some local attraction discounts and passes to attractions like the Butterfly Conservatory, ice cream from Dairy Queen and many others so they can choose an activity that suits their family. They also have the option to just relax pool or beach-side. Each family will also have the opportunity to take family photos donated by local photographer Cassandra McDaniel.
“In the evenings, we have dinners together at different locations and have other planned activities, such as a sunset cruise on Fury’s Commotion on the Ocean, game night at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, dinner at El Meson de Pepe with cookies from Mattheessen’s for dessert and then a stroll to Mallory Square for sunset.”
But just because the retreat is family-oriented doesn’t mean that the grownups don’t deserve a little time to decompress a deux. “Wednesday evenings are set up for date night,” Dickinson explains. “With help from some of our local restaurants, like Bagatelle, Antonia’s, Firefly, Martin’s and quite a few others over the years, the couples get to enjoy a relaxing dinner while other volunteers provide dinner and activities for the kids.”
Key West’s huge heart and endlessly giving spirit are what makes the island a perfect location for the Little Pink retreat. “Our loving and supportive community here in Key West makes us a great destination for these families,” Dickinson says. “We could not do what we do without the support of our community. Our house donors, business and restaurant sponsors and volunteers help make this a memorable week for our families — without their support, this would not exist. St Paul’s Episcopal Church is also a big part of our week. They allow our volunteers to have a home away from home while they are here to help with the families throughout the week. St. Paul’s also provides us a place to have meals together as a group and an activity space. We have so many activities available for the participants and what better place to hang out and relax as a family together for a week? Key West is a great fit for the families to see a new destination that they might not get a chance to visit and enjoy our warm waters and all the love this island has to offer.”
For the Little Pink families, these retreats are often once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to enjoy brand new experiences with their own families and to explore the breast cancer process with people who are traveling the same path. “Some of the magical moments we have experienced with the past participants are truly awesome,” Dickinson says. “Some have never swam in the ocean or snorkeled, so to see them participate and enjoy these moments or to see them challenge themselves with an activity like paddle boarding is very rewarding.
“There are two activities during the week that seem to get the best feedback from past participants. First, we have a survivor’s breakfast for the participants and any volunteers. This time of fellowship and sharing means a lot to the group, as they can connect with each other and relate the challenges of the recovery journey together.
“We also finish up our week Friday night with a pre-sunset dinner at Fort Zach. Following dinner, the volunteers and participants gather in a circle and reflect on what the week has meant to them and what special moments they experienced throughout the week. There is generally not a dry eye in the circle after hearing how the week has changed the participants as well as the volunteers. We all enjoy the sunset and the reflection prior to saying our goodbyes.”
Little Pink Houses of Hope is always looking for donations or volunteers who would like to get involved. If you’d like to contribute in any way, email email@example.com. In addition, the program is still accepting gift cards in any denomination from Publix, Winn-Dixie or GFS to help feed the retreat participants and volunteers throughout the week. Gift cards can be mailed to Little Pink c/o Sharon Dickinson, 2400 Seidenberg Ave., Key West, FL 33040. You can read more about Little Pink Houses of Hope at www.littlepink.org. ¦