A 25-Year Reflection: Eric Interviews Former Executive Director James Giessler

For the past 25 years, Cancer Support Community Central Indiana (CSC) has led the charge in Indiana to build a vibrant community of cancer survivors and their loved ones, providing relevant and highly personalized support when and where it is needed most.

In celebration of Cancer Support Community Central Indiana’s 25th Anniversary, we’ll share stories looking at our beginning, our present, and our future on the 25th of each month. We’ll celebrate the visionaries who started our journey, chronicle stories of our participants, and show the impact of our services. We’ll also explore our hopes and plans for the next 25 years and beyond.

As President and CEO Eric Richards often notes, the success of Cancer Support Community Indiana is largely due to the work those who have come before us have put in. One such person we owe much gratitude to is James Giessler, who was Executive Director of CSC (then The Wellness Community-Central Indiana) from 2000 to 2008.

For the sixth story in our 25th anniversary series, Eric sat down with James to talk about his experiences with The Wellness Community, starting our Laughing Matters event, and his life’s work in the nonprofit sector.

“I just jumped in with both feet.”

Unlike many of our interviewees, James doesn’t have a cancer story or a personal reason for getting involved with CSC—at least not on the surface. When his initial dreams of becoming a professional singer and performer didn’t pan out, like many of us, he ended up working in the for-profit sector for a short time. While he was able to make a living, he didn’t love that all his energy and efforts were going to make someone else rich. He figured there had to be a more fulfilling way to live his life and eventually was introduced into the world of fundraising. He didn’t even know that could be a career, but once he looked into it, he found he was pretty good at it.

He cut his teeth in the nonprofit sector working for Indiana Cares, an HIV/AIDS organization. From there, he ended up as Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Butler, his alma mater, but felt pigeonholed and realized he wanted to learn more about major gifts and fundraising. While at Butler, the Executive Director position at The Wellness Community came across his desk.

He had never heard of the organization before. He had no experience as an Executive Director. But he was intrigued by the job and really loved The Wellness Community’s mission, so he decided to throw his hat in the ring and see what came of it. When he was offered the position, he jumped in with both feet.

He may have made mistakes along the way (don’t we all), but he also left his indelible stamp on the organization, opened the door for incredible growth, and paved the way for the success CSC experiences to this day.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but we knew we needed it.”

Probably James’ biggest legacy during his time at The Wellness Community was the building and opening of the Paulsen Family Center. As you may remember from previous Eric’s Interviews, The Wellness Community started out in a small suite of offices at Keystone at the Crossing. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” James says about the experience of starting the capital campaign to raise funds for a new building. “But we knew we needed it.”

The Wellness Community had outgrown their Keystone location. They didn’t have their own bathrooms or their own entrance. Participants had to walk through a “gauntlet of smokers” just to get into the building. They knew they had to do better for their participants. So they came up with their dream and got to work figuring out what it would take to make it happen.

James is quick to give credit to everyone involved in the capital campaign and the building of the Paulsen Family Center, from Kathy Langham and Tina Burks, the co-leaders of the capital campaign, to the builder and architect who not only did a phenomenal job, but also brought on so many great partners that generously donated money, time, and resources. The roof, the stone, the kitchen…these are just a few of the things donated to help keep costs down and quality up.

The day of the grand opening of the Paulsen Family Center was an incredibly emotional one for James, and one he’ll never forget. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” James says. “And then to come back…and see that it’s better, even more fantastic than it was. It just warmed the cockles of my heart.”

“I can’t have wished for a better way to spend my life.”

Since his time at The Wellness Community, James has spent the rest of his professional life, to date, in the nonprofit sector. But he credits his time at The Wellness Community as where he really learned his craft in fundraising and nonprofit management. He found, during his time with us, that he loved every minute of it—he loved working with donors and nonprofit boards. He loved knowing that what he was doing made a difference in people’s lives in a real and tangible way. He would never be able to say that in the for-profit sector, so he never looked back.

After The Wellness Community, James moved east to Massachusetts to work for an ALS organization, and then took a job with the Harvard Glee Club—a performing arts organization that was near and dear to his heart. These days he’s the Executive Director/CEO for North Shore Alliance of Gay & Lesbian Youth, an organization that “honors, respects, educates, and empowers GLBTQ+ youth.” He loves going to work every day, loves seeing kids and knowing they have a brave, safe space to be who they are and to grow into their authentic selves.

“I can’t have wished for a better way to spend my life than in service to people in need in one way or another,” James says. “It’s what I wanted and what I needed, and it’s fulfilled that need for me.”

“We always celebrated laughter.”

This year, on June 4th, CSC will host the 21st Laughing Matters, our annual fundraising event. This event has become wildly popular and successful for us, and we have James to thank for getting it started.

“We always celebrated laughter at The Wellness Center,” James says, and the whole thing started with a much humbler event. Giving Thanks Through Laughter was a potluck dinner and open mic night—not a fundraiser—for the organization’s participants, where everyone would come together to tell stories and jokes and make each other laugh. When they heard the St. Louis chapter of The Wellness Center had started a fundraising event called Laughing Matters, James and his crew thought the two events would be a great pairing.

So they arranged with a local comedy club in Broad Ripple to allow The Wellness Center to take over on an off-night. The comedian got the proceeds from the bar, but TWC got the proceeds from the tickets, and they paired with local restaurants to donate food. In addition, the comedian would usually come to The Wellness Center a night or two before the event to do a set at the Giving Thanks Through Laughter potluck dinner, just for the participants and staff.

One year, James will never forget, a young comedian no one had heard of came out to the Keystone offices and did the most amazing set. He was hilarious, but his stories were also poignant and really tugged at the heartstrings. Who was that special performer? None other than the (now) famous Kevin Hart!

“TWC/CSC will always have a very special place in my heart.”

James maintains that The Wellness Community and CSC will always have a special place in his heart and life as the organization where he spent his formative years as an executive director. He says he couldn’t be prouder of the time spent here and urges us to “keep up the good fight!”

“I take a great deal of pride in every accomplishment that you have,” he says. “I read the newsletters and I think ‘oh my God, I can’t believe what they’re doing.’ And somehow it just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to know that building is still there and it’s still doing what it was intended to do, and that people with cancer don’t have to face it alone.”

Join Us for the Journey!

How have you been impacted by Cancer Support Community? We invite you to share your stories and memories by emailing info@cancersupportindy.org.

Thank you to our 25th Anniversary Celebration Sponsors!
  • Lilly Oncology
  • Tracy Haddad
  • Gary and Janet Stach
  • John, Cathy and Margaret Langham
  • Nicholas H. Noyes Jr. Memorial Foundation