A 25-Year Reflection: Eric Interviews First CSC Executive Director, Vicki Kennedy

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.

For the fourth story in our 25th anniversary series, President Eric Richards interviewed our co-founder and first Executive Director, Vicki Kennedy. Before we were known as Cancer Support Community, we were The Wellness Community…and we have Vicki to thank for starting up this incredible organization in the first place! Watch the video above for Vicki’s full interview with Eric.

“In that moment, I knew.”

It would be difficult to find someone as dedicated to the mission of helping people navigate their cancer journeys as Vicki Kennedy. It’s a mission that started for Vicki long before she became involved in CSC and continues to this day. Currently, Vicki works as the Executive Director of Oncology Strategy & Patient Engagement at Cullari Communications Global and has been involved with oncology social work for the past 37 years. In 1993, she helped co-found The Wellness Community-Central Indiana, now known as Cancer Support Community Central Indiana.

At the time, Vicki was working in psychosocial oncology research with the Walther Cancer Institute, when a friend and fellow social worker insisted she meet Ed Goldwasser—a cancer patient who was in a support group that her friend ran. Ed was an absolute dynamo. Despite his battle with this disease, he was full of passion and excitement, and he had a goal: he had read Gilda Radner’s autobiography, where he was first introduced to The Wellness Community—a warm, supportive group for cancer patients that Gilda had gone to in Santa Monica. He wanted to open a branch of The Wellness Community in Indiana, and he wanted Vicki to help him do it.

Vicki was skeptical at first. She’d just had her second child, and while she had heard about The Wellness Community, she didn’t really know much about them. But Ed—perpetual salesman that he was—convinced her to visit a branch of the organization in Cincinnati so she could make up her mind after seeing them in action. As soon as Vicki walked in the building and met the staff, she fell in love with the program. “In that moment, I knew,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

“A great birthplace.”

After that fateful visit, things moved pretty quickly for Vicki and Ed. In order to start the Central Indiana branch of The Wellness Community, they had to raise a whopping $400,000 and find a space to host the organization and programs. Because of the outpouring of support from the Indianapolis community, this proved easier than expected—they ended up raising twice what they needed to get started, and Duke Realty (still a vital supporter of the CSC) donated 3,800 square feet across from Keystone at the Crossing for them to work out of. They landed a charter within a few months of that fateful Cincinnati visit, and The Wellness Community-Central Indiana was officially started in late 1993.

Through the dedication of their dynamic new board of directors, the donations didn’t stop at Duke. Kittles supplied beautiful new furniture for the space, while H.H. Gregg updated the kitchen. Various other contractors came in to make the library and other common spaces cozy and welcoming for staff and participants, alike. When you keep in mind that the country was going through a recession at the time, the generosity of everyone involved was that much more powerful.

“Cancer is far more than the biology of the disease.”

Starting a business or organization of any sort is never easy, and The Wellness Community-Central Indiana was no exception. In addition to the usual challenges of raising money and awareness, the infant organization also had another problem: making their mission known and understood so they would be embraced by the medical and business communities.

25 years ago, the concept of taking care of both the mind and body during a patient’s cancer journey was novel. Today, there is so much evidence-based research to support this notion, but in the mid-90s, it took a lot of time to get people to realize that this organization really helped people live with and beyond cancer. In this, Ed was a fantastic advocate. He’d pull out a handmade flyer from his suit pocket and tell anyone and everyone—from the top philanthropic leaders in the community to the doorman of the building—about The Wellness Community and its mission.

“I thought you were a cancer organization…”

Vicki contends that the benefits of starting The Wellness Community far outweighed any challenges that stood in the way. Building something from nothing was one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole process. They had a little bell over the door in their offices, and any time they heard it ring, they would get so excited that someone was there for one of their programs. Their work was reaching and enriching the community—how could they not be proud of that?

And despite the misperception of a place like The Wellness Community being sad or depressing, the rooms and hallways were often filled with laughter. One day, the mailman came into Vicki’s office and half-whispered, “I thought you were a cancer organization. There sure is a lot of laughter down the hall!” Vicki set him straight right away, helping him see that The Wellness Community was a space for laughing, crying, and learning together. By the time he left, the mailman was ready to tell other people about the organization and all the good they did for the community.

And it didn’t stop with the mailman. Once others started engaging with the organization and the programs, they told more and more people their stories, which brought even more people in the door. “It’s so special,” Vicki says. “And it’s rare that you get that gift in your lifetime, to start something so meaningful. For me that’s probably the most rewarding thing, looking back.”

“We never imagined it would be where it is today.”

“Oh wow, that’s a big one!” Vicki says when asked what she wishes for CSC’s next 25 years. When they started the organization two and a half decades ago, she and Ed never imagined it would have come so far and developed such an incredible reach and impact.

Her main wish is that CSC continues to grow in Indiana and to meet Hoosiers where they are, continuing to use technology to bring programs to people’s homes and phones. She wants to see CSC continue to develop methods of reaching underserved communities that have difficulty getting cancer care and empower them to get the help and access to resources that they need. She wishes for us to be able to reach as many different types of Hoosiers as possible.

In a broader sense, Vicki also hopes that CSC continues to touch more lives, to grow partnerships with the medical community and to eventually be seen as a quintessential part of the cancer journey, as important as the physical care like chemo and radiation. She hopes that CSC will continue to be a loud voice that changes the landscape of cancer care in the state.

I think it’s safe to say that we share her vision for our future. It’s because of the solid foundation Vicki built for CSC that we’re able to thrive as an organization and make a difference in the Indiana community.

“There’s something really gratifying when you build something…to see it thrive decades later,” Vicki says. “That’s really special. Wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

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