By Janene Holzberg
12:46 PM EST, February 4, 2013
As a caregiver, Richard DeCaro knows that a little kindness goes a long way. And now he has a local nonprofit organization to thank for making his life a little easier.
The Dorsey’s Search resident began taking care of his wife, Ellen, in 2008 after she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer at age 50.
She had been teaching consumer science at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City, the happy result of a late-in-life career switch, when she awoke from a nap one day and didn’t know who she was, he says. Symptoms such as vocabulary loss eventually led her to leave the job she loved.
Nowadays, says Richard, 57, “I basically surround Ellen all the time.”
So when he received a personalized gift basket from The Little Things for Cancer, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization based in Columbia, he was touched.
“It made me feel really good that someone cared about me,” he says. “No one had ever done anything like that before.”
Making people feel better is the goal of TLT4C, as it is affectionately known. And financial need is never a condition of giving.
“We’re all about improving quality of life,” says Wendy Letow, founder and executive director. “We work at reducing stress and anxiety for cancer patients and their caregivers. The ‘little things’ can be really huge for them.”
The organization helps by disbursing the funds it raises to social workers who identify such needs as transportation, child care, meals and prescription payments. But there is also money available to pay for “entertainment to lift spirits and so much more,” Letow says.
Letow, 43, founded the organization in 2006, but says she “quickly realized she was in over her head.”
Aside from organizing one event that raised $1,000, activity quickly ground to a halt.
The Ellicott City resident continued working as a full-time massage therapist and as an assistant in a dental office. She also volunteered for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults in Howard County and for the Red Devils, a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of breast cancer patients, and where Letow was mentored.
After being idle for four years, TLT4C “really became an organization” two years ago, Letow says.
She and her husband, Larry, who have three grown children, made the decision that she should quit her jobs and devote herself to working as TLT4C’s unpaid executive director, she says, adding that “things really took off quickly” after that.
“I began asking people whose lives were touched by all kinds of cancer what they were missing,” she says.
She currently works to fulfill needs identified by caseworkers at five Maryland hospitals in three counties and in Baltimore City. Aside from Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, the organization works with Shady Grove Adventist in Montgomery County as well as Anne Arundel, Mercy and University of Maryland medical centers.
Other Maryland hospitals are under consideration as is the possibility of adding a paid staff position, she says. A Boston chapter has formed, but will operate somewhat independently.
“We’re raising money in the state, and that’s where it should stay,” Letow says of the Columbia group. “We want to support more cancer patients who live or are treated in Maryland, along with their caregivers.”
There is an undisclosed quarterly cap on funding per person, she explains, “since not everyone asks for just enough.”
Diane Tollick, a patient resource guide at Howard County General Hospital, understands the emotional value of what Letow’s organization offers.
“It’s a wonderful avenue when people say, ‘I wish I could have …’ and we have a fund for that,” she says. “Wendy enables the little miracles.”
As for caregivers, “it’s not that it’s OK to take care of yourself — it’s a requirement,” adds Tollick, who is based at the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center on Charter Drive. “It means the world (to them) to be remembered. They get tears in their eyes.”
Letow has also amassed a corps of 110 volunteers who solicit donations, provide fundraising event support, bake, cook and help with patient communications, web design, legal assistance, marketing, accounting, holiday gift giving and more.
“The list is endless, and I couldn’t do this without them,” she says.
She also works with an eight-member board of directors from her office in the Manekin building on Robert Fulton Drive in space donated by the commercial real estate company, and learned bookkeeping from her husband, she says.
The massage therapist was inspired to found the organization by a former client, Bill Hartley, who told her in 2003 that his wife, Jennifer, had been diagnosed with liver cancer.
“Not really knowing what to say or do, I offered to treat Jennifer to a cranial sacral therapy session to help ease her pain,” Letow writes on her organization’s website, tlt4c.org. That spontaneous offer led to a year-long relationship with the couple in which she continued to offer complementary therapies.
“Witnessing Bill’s selflessness and unconditional love of Jennifer during her battle with cancer both warmed and broke my heart,” she says, noting Jennifer died in 2004 at age 49. “It was time to make a difference in the lives of others affected by cancer. The profound work we did together made me realize that we often take for granted ‘the little things’ in life.”
In September 2011, Letow was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which resulted in two surgeries and a six-month recovery period.
“It’s the worst when you hear you have cancer,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what kind or what stage. Psychologically, you fear dying.”
Having now survived her illness, Letow can observe firsthand that “it’s a beautiful thing to take something so tragic and turn it around to help people,” she says.
“I just feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
For more information about The Little Things for Cancer, visit tlt4c.org or call 443-228-8584.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun