As a working mother of two boys, Holly Thornton was already adapting to a new normal after a recent divorce when life dealt her a huge blow.
The 34-year-old Elkridge resident was diagnosed with breast cancer in March and had a double mastectomy soon after. Since her surgery, she has worked at maintaining a positive outlook as she prepares to start chemotherapy.
Thornton says she’s making real progress, thanks in part to an unexpected boost from a new Ellicott City-based nonprofit called Respite Retreats.
The main mission of the fledgling organization is to provide all-expenses paid retreats for cancer patients and their personal caregivers to give them a break from their everyday routines, said founder and executive director Wendy Letow.
“I want laughter and fun to be the focus,” said Letow, a 49-year-old cervical cancer survivor and Columbia resident. “I know firsthand what it means to be a patient and a caregiver.”
As a capital campaign to build a private facility in Howard County gets underway, the nonprofit will host day retreats at local venues, she said.
Architectural renderings for a proposed $6 million retreat complex will be unveiled May 20 at Respite Retreats Sneak Peek, a happy-hour fundraiser at Stanford Grill in Columbia from 5:30 to 8 p.m. A limited number of $100 tickets are available and must be reserved by May 15 through the nonprofit’s Facebook page.
Initial design plans call for a 14,600-square-foot facility that resembles a two-story barn. It will be separated by a courtyard from a 4,600-square-foot residential building that looks like a stable and will consist of 15 two-person units. Money will also be raised to buy land unless a parcel is donated.
“I want a place for people to be together without being probed and prodded, where they can forget about their cares and just breathe,” Letow said.
Neither Howard County residency nor income eligibility will be prerequisites, she said.
Respite Retreats has an unpaid staff of three who work out of donated office space in a high-rise building on University Boulevard, off of Waterloo Road. Helping Letow are development director Lisa Marr and program director Lisa Gresham.
The nonprofit is accepting applications for its first day retreat, which will be from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. July 20 at Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center in Marriottsville. There are slots for 15 cancer patients who may each bring a personal caregiver. An online application is available at respiteretreats.org.
Activity choices will vary depending on the retreat and include yoga, meditation, music therapy, journaling, reiki and massage, among other options.
Thornton, who will attend the premiere retreat with her mother, praised Letow for going above and beyond to support her.
“Wendy is helping me to navigate the process and is completely involved,” she said. “Through all the bad news, she’s been a bright spot to look forward to and she’s taking a big burden off me.”
Letow said she decided to form Respite Retreats after she woke up about a year ago with a detailed vision she likened to “a download of information.”
Since she’d recently retired, she initially resisted sharing the concept with her husband, technology business owner Larry Letow, because she thought he might think it was too grandiose — even though she had formed another nonprofit in 2006.
When she finally divulged her plan, he had no qualms over its scope, she said.
“Larry said, ‘It’s an amazing idea and if anyone can do it, you can,’ ” Letow recalled. “Once I had his blessing, [the project] seemed so attainable.”
Letow’s first nonprofit was The Little Things for Cancer. Staff raised funds to pay for patients’ needs that might otherwise fall by the wayside, such as transportation, child care and prescriptions. Money was also available for extras to lift spirits, such as gift baskets and entertainment tickets.
TLT4C, as Letow liked to call it, was merged into the Ellicott City-based Zaching Against Cancer Foundation in 2016 and is now known as The Little Things Program.
John Lederer, president of Zaching Against Cancer, said his son, the late Zach Lederer, had wanted to offer patients what Letow was already offering, so the merger was a natural fit.
“We loved what Wendy was doing,” John Lederer said of his family, who named their foundation after the nickname for the strongman pose that Zach made famous as he battled brain cancer until his death in 2014 at age 20.
“Wendy was very successful,” he said, “and it was exactly what we wanted to do.”
Letow said her work with TLT4C, which she continued managing under its new name for the Lederers for a couple years before retiring, has led some people to refer to her as “a walking resource” for the needs of cancer patients.
Fueled by community support and her husband’s encouragement, Letow traveled with board member and breast cancer survivor Lisa DeVries to Washington state in October to tour Harmony Hill Healing Retreat and “pick the brains of their founder.”
The pair was inspired by what they learned.
“It dawned on me how much I had asked of my husband as a caregiver,” Letow said of her own cancer diagnosis in 2011, “and I realized that caregivers often neglect their own needs.”
Plans call for 8 to 12 overnight stays of four or five days and 20 one-day retreats each year, Letow said.
A second retreat at Bon Secours in November is also in the works. After that event, the nonprofit will seek referrals from hospitals and cancer centers treating patients who want to participate, Letow said.
Peter Watts, a private practitioner who intends to volunteer his services as a licensed massage therapist, joined the nascent effort because his mother’s death of complications from brain cancer “is a big part of my story.”
“I understand that cancer patients experience heavy stresses, and this work gives me a tremendous sense of purpose,” said Watts, a Columbia resident.
Letow said empathy and compassion are two of the main attributes she looks for in partners since those qualities will elevate the nonprofit’s reputation as it strives to become a national retreat destination for cancer patients.
“My long-term goal is to expand our reach across the U.S.,” she said.
Acknowledging that’s a daunting goal, Letow added, “It’s not going to be easy, but I’m not in any way fearful about it. This beautiful project is part of my healing and I’m just so excited.”