Little Pink Retreats Make Time for Hope - Carolina Country

Little Pink Retreats Make Time for Hope

NC-based program provides welcome refuge for breast cancer patients

By Hannah Miller

Little Pink Retreats Make Time for Hope

Toni Dursteler with her daughter Shayli. (Photo by Bret Cole Photography)

Spenser Brandy Titus Medlin

Linda Rudeseal volunteer

Top: Thirteen-year-old Spenser greets his mom, Brandy Medlin of New London, and 3-year-old brother Titus after a trip out on Davis Canal. 
Above: Linda Rudeseal, who has survived two bouts with cancer, was eager to volunteer to help other patients, as was her husband Bill. (Photos by Hannah Miller)

A woman kayaking on Oak Island’s Davis Canal wears a pink-billed cap with her orange life vest, a way to cover hair thinned by breast cancer treatment.

Another breast cancer patient navigating the canal’s calm waters confesses that her life vest hurts her tender chest. She paddles anyway, the vest safely stowed at arm’s reach.

In the evening, two three-year-olds chase a 13-year-old around a church basement as volunteer cooks prepare ravioli for an evening dinner. In the meal line, the conversation turns from the beauty of Oak Island Lighthouse to hot tubs to a pontoon boat ride that ran unthreateningly aground. The Atlantic Ocean pulses softly nearby.

Such normalcy is the goal of Little Pink Houses of Hope, a grassroots organization begun by a former breast cancer patient to give a free week of vacation to families struggling with the disease. The program, which in 2018 will be enjoyed by more than 170 families, offers those drained emotionally and financially a week to be “completely free of doctors, hospitals and all the pain,” explains former cancer patient Linda Rudeseal, a Brunswick EMC member who is one of hundreds of volunteers who make the week easy and fun for guests.

Volunteers like Linda and her husband, Bill, provide everything from free vacation home rentals to the day-to-day necessities of a vacation, like paper plates and beach towels. Local churches play a major role, providing meals and gifts. Businesses, organizations and individuals chip in with kayaking lessons, fishing and aquarium trips, even maintenance work on hot tubs and pools.

Little Pink families relax St John retreat

A group of Little Pink families relax at the St. John retreat. (Photo by Little Pink Houses of Hope)

Another former patient, Carol Taylor of Bogue, volunteers at the Emerald Isle retreat. The Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative member has been cancer-free for 12 years, but vividly remembers the painful days when “I prayed so hard that I could live to see one of my grandchildren born.” She had none then; now she has 11 (“they just sprouted”). Her experience with the illness helps her when filling gift baskets that her church, Bethlehem United Methodist of Bogue, puts in the vacation houses to await the visitors.

“If they’re in treatment, I make sure they get lemon drops to soothe their throats, to keep them from being nauseous,” Taylor says.

“Somebody told me during my treatment, and it worked. I have a wrap in there, in case they get a chill.”

The gift baskets, Taylor explains, send a simple message: “I care for you.”

“Every little bit helps when you’re in a bad place,” she says.

One woman’s dream

Little Pink began seven years ago with Jeanine Patten-Coble of Burlington, who was a high school history teacher and professional educational trainer in NC for 15 years before being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. The diagnosis came just before a planned trip to Hatteras Island. She went on vacation with her family despite the news, and when she saw boarded-up houses sitting unused on the beach, an idea was born.

Breast cancer treatment sometimes leaves families with little time or energy to connect with one another, she thought. Why couldn’t vacation rental properties be made available free, one week a year, to other families struggling with her diagnosis?

She started pushing the idea, and by 2011, the first Little Pink retreat got underway with five vacation sites and 40 families. In the years since, it has served 563 families, with a goal of hosting 11 families at each of 16 sites in 2018.

Five NC beach areas are among the 2018 hosts: Oak Island, Emerald Isle, Buxton, Hatteras and Pleasure Island. The goal for 2020 is 20 sites.

Little Pink has to limit the number of sites to the number of houses available. At Oak Island, there are often enough offers to create a waiting list, which came in handy when Hurricane Irma forced rescheduling last summer.

Some owners who had pledged their houses for the first date even turned around and offered them again, says Kristin Goode of Oak Island Accommodations, which coordinated the offers. People seem to be inspired by different motivations, says Goode, recalling that one owner confided that his wife had recently died of cancer.

Upcoming season

Donations of housing, money and volunteer services for the 2018 season are being accepted now online (littlepink.org).

Enrollment applications are being accepted online as well (through July 13, 2018). Applicants must either be in treatment for breast cancer or have completed treatment in the past year, with preference given to those still in treatment. Applicants may list several choices of retreats, and if one of their choices is closed they are considered for the others. When enrollment at a site is full, as is Pleasure Island April 22–28, it’s marked “closed” on the application site.

Close to 2,000 applications come in each year from patients, including men, explaining why they want to come.

“I think this is the best vacation we’ve ever had,” says Janet Grubbs of Lexington, South Carolina, one of the kayakers on the Oak Island trip. Her sons Josh, 16, Jonathan, 21, and Michael, 25, joined her for the vacation. “Everything we’ve been through in the past year … to come here and spend time with my boys … We don’t [ordinarily] get to do that.”

About the Author

Hannah Miller is a Carolina Country contributing writer who lives in Charlotte.

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