HOLDEN, Maine — Converting a former furniture retail showroom into a hospitality house for cancer patients and their loved ones is no easy task. Just ask the volunteers who have been working to turn Sarah Robinson’s dream into a reality.
Among other things, the effort has involved expanding the septic system, gutting the entire building and reinsulating. It also involved installing a sprinkler system and heat pumps.
Dividing walls have been built to turn what used to be wide-open showroom space into accommodations for up to nine adult cancer patients and their companions, as well as shared space for cooking, eating, meeting, doing laundry — whatever one would expect in a home away from home.
“We gutted the place right to the exterior wall and just started all over again,” said Stan Peterson, a technology education teacher at Old Town High School who is overseeing the renovations along with Lin Lufkin, a retired Nickerson & O’Day construction vice president and project manager.
If all goes to plan, the former Fox Run Furniture Galleries building will reopen later this summer as Sarah’s House, a hospitality house for cancer patients undergoing treatment at Eastern Maine Medical Center’s CancerCare of Maine facilities less than 3 miles away in Brewer.
Peterson estimated this week that since renovations began in April, about 3,500 volunteer work hours have gone into the effort.
Sarah’s House was the dream of Sarah Robinson, a young wife, mother and Old Town Rotarian who was diagnosed with cancer in 2010.
Sarah and her husband, Ben, had to travel from Old Town to Boston for treatment. Through that experience, they learned about places where cancer patients could stay for little or no cost during their treatment, according to Sarah’s House of Maine’s website.
When Sarah returned to the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer, she met patients who, like her, had traveled hundreds of miles and spent hours in the car, driving from Maine’s most rural areas for treatment.
Drawn up by WBRC Architects Engineers, plans for Sarah’s House include rooms for residents, a great room with a kitchen, bar seating and a dining area, a quiet room, kitchen and laundry facilities.
“This is the kind of social hub of the house where people can come together, whether for food or for supporting one another,” Lindsay Turner, Sarah’s identical twin, said of the great room while leading a tour of the building. Turner is one of the driving forces behind the undertaking, along with Sarah’s husband, Ben Robinson.
“Sarah felt that when she was diagnosed, she was on an island. She could see the shore but she really couldn’t connect to people. There were people she knew well but they weren’t going through what she was going through,” Turner said.
Sarah wanted to provide them access to low-cost or no-cost temporary housing like she had seen in Boston.
Before she died in December 2011, Sarah brought together a group of Maine Rotarians, cancer survivors, civic leaders and treatment providers who formed a nonprofit corporation to take on the task.
According to CancerCare of Maine, cancer incidence in the northern two-thirds of Maine is among the highest in the nation and patients in this region typically receive most of their care at the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer. On an average day, nearly 135 of those patients drive 30 or more miles each way for treatment.
Turner said making Sarah’s House a reality has been a labor of love for which no one has been paid. Most if not all of those who have become involved have been touched by cancer in one way or another.
Peterson, whose wife had cancer, said one of the reasons he got involved was that he learned from a CancerCare of Maine official that some Mainers were opting out of treatment because of travel and housing costs. The hospital official said that he had gone to Calais to speak to a group of 16 cancer patients.
“When he got done the meeting, four of those patients just came up to him and said, ‘We can’t afford the burden of going to your cancer center to be treated,’” he said. “Three of those were curable and unnecessarily died.”
“The community support has been huge,” she said. “We have had an enormous outpouring of local support from businesses and individuals alike, both in resources and volunteers.”
The price tag for Sarah’s House amounts to $3.4 million but that includes an endowment designed to cover operating costs, Turner said. Well over $1 million remains to be raised, she said.
Turner said the suggested contribution from those who stay at Sarah’s House will be $15 a day, however, no one will be turned away for inability to pay. Guests also should plan to bring their own groceries because of the varying dietary needs of each cancer patient.
One way to contribute to the cause comes on Saturday, when Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate’s Masiello Group holds its third annual yard sale to benefit Sarah’s House. The event runs from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. at 1162 Union St. in Bangor, Turner said, adding that the event has become one of the hospitality house’s major fundraisers.
Donations to Sarah’s House can be made online through www.sarahshouseofmaine.org or sent to Sarah’s House c/o EMHS Foundation, P.O. Box 931, Bangor, ME 04401.