The first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City in June 1995, and three years later, Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee was founded. This year, and this month specifically, marks the 20th anniversary of the Nashville chapter’s efforts to provide support, education and hope to all people impacted by cancer. Sandy Obodzinski is well-suited, both professionally and personally, for the role of CEO and President of Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee. Sandy discovered a new sense of purpose when acting as caretaker for her husband, who passed away from an aggressive form of leukemia. She translated her ability to create meaning out of loss, and in addition to ballroom dancing, creative writing, hiking and earning a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University, she shared her talents and understanding with Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee. Today, we celebrate their 20th anniversary — and their benevolent leader, Sandy Obodzinki!
Tell us about your background.
I’m a Midwesterner at heart, having lived my whole life in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois before transplanting to Nashville in 2005. The first half of my professional career didn’t seem to make sense in terms of forging a linear progression. But, the marketing, event planning, management and leadership aspects of my roles came together to allow me to create a new path when I moved to Nashville.
How did your husband’s leukemia diagnosis impact the trajectory of your career?
It changed everything. I know I’ll never understand why him, why cancer, why when we were so young, and that’s okay. Being his caregiver for the one year of his illness was the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done and most purpose-filled I have ever felt. The entire experience drove me to continue to create meaning going forward. So, when I moved to Tennessee, I looked for organizations where I hoped to make a difference, both with my professional and personal experience. I convinced an organization that I could fundraise (having never done so) … and I’ve been learning, growing and contributing in Middle Tennessee’s nonprofit community for the past 12 years.
What do you bring to Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee?
I think (and hope) I bring compassion, understanding and comfort, whether that’s a laugh or a hug. As our CEO, I bring an inspiring vision for the future, passion combined with ambition and a dedication to expanding our reach in the most inclusive way possible.
Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee is celebrating 20 years. Tell us about the impact the organization has made on our community.
Twenty years ago, the idea of emotional and social support for people impacted by cancer was a concept in its infancy. As a society, we were just beginning to study the benefits of psychosocial support in treatment outcomes. So, one significant impact is our influence on the cultural understanding and appreciation that emotional support is an essential part of a holistic treatment plan. This evidence-based affirmation opens the door to people being willing to seek support and to be vulnerable as they share experiences, fears and hopes.
Then there’s the impact on each person’s life, which is nearly impossible to count or capture because more than 4,000 people have walked through our red door. One member told us that Gilda’s Club “saved my family” — literally, by providing support for his teenage children after their mom died. Another member said she needed Gilda’s Club and didn’t know that until she arrived here. Another said he has “a good life with cancer.” Our most significant impact is every person who has felt seen, heard, supported in their cancer experience … every person who has not had to face cancer alone.
RELATED: Coping With Cancer: Hope’s Story
You recently celebrated two years as President & CEO. What has been your greatest achievement during your time at Gilda’s Club?
The board, donors, volunteers and staff have collectively achieved some huge milestones in these past two years, including the opening of our first satellite location in Williamson County. For achievements like that, it truly takes a village. For me personally, I believe my greatest achievement has been inspiring more people in our community to become aware of and involved in Gilda’s Club’s mission. Recently, a new donor shared his thanks saying, “I really feel like I’m part of Gilda’s Club and all the great work you’re doing.” That was incredibly fulfilling to hear.
What is one piece of advice you have for those with loved ones who are facing cancer?
Advice can be difficult because every experience is as unique as the person facing a diagnosis, whether the person with cancer or a friend/family member. But I would offer a couple of things: Honor his or her individual experience. You can do this by listening more than you talk. Allowing space for someone to share, especially the hard stuff. Remembering that what may comfort you, may not comfort someone else. And show up. Be there to listen, help and support. One of our members taught us the life-changing power of showing up for each other.
Gilda’s Club recognizes the importance of community. Why did you choose the Nashville community? What has it given you?
Moving from Chicago, two of my reasons were because Nashville was warmer and had less traffic! During the past 13 years, Nashville has obviously changed a lot. But one thing that hasn’t changed is an ingrained value of helping others. And I hope that never changes. Nashville gave me a new chapter to write and several people took a chance on me, believing in what I had to offer. For that, I will always be grateful.
When you aren’t working, where can we find you?
In the woods, in a bookstore, with friends or traveling to National Parks. Nature calms and rejuvenates me all at the same time. Three years ago, I moved to Kingston Springs to what I call “my treehouse in the woods.” Having a front-row seat as seasons pass actually makes time slow down a bit.
What books are on your bedside table?
Devotions, a book of poetry by Mary Oliver. The Happiness Curve by Jonathan Rauch. Bella Grace Magazine, a book-like publication dedicated to finding magic in the ordinary. The Overstory by Richard Powers.
What is the best piece of advice you have received, and from whom?
A good friend and mentor once told me that fundraising isn’t about money. It’s about people. And helping people realize the difference they want to make in the world or in their community. Financial gifts are the by-product of relationships. Relationships come first, always. I believe this whole-heartedly.
What are three things you cannot live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Time spent in nature, books and creative writing.
Thank you to Sandy Obodzinski for sharing your story and your gifts, and a special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos!
With 23 years of nursing experience and 16 years as a lactation consultant (not to mention her firsthand experience as a mother and now grandmother), Noreen Webb is not only passionate about working at TriStar StoneCrest, she’s also well-versed in the benefits, challenges and myths associated with breastfeeding. CLICK HERE to meet our newest FACE of TriStar!