Center For Building Hope: A Place Designed For Healing

The prominent arch that bridges the distance across the two main pavilions at Lakewood Ranch's Center for Building Hope (CFBH), a nonprofit wellness and education center for individuals affected by cancer, is typically the first thing people notice as they approach the facility.

Constructed from Florida Pine tree trunks originally harvested along the Suwannee River more than 100 years ago, the facility's "Bridge of Hope'' arcs skyward as a symbol of strength, permanence and resilience -- a hopeful reminder for the thousands who visit the CFBH to seek support and serenity in the face of a cancer diagnosis each year.

At the CFBH, one prevailing belief is that no one should have to face cancer alone. The other is that a healthy mind and spirit can work wonders in promoting healing -- even in the face of the darkest diagnosis.

It is this idea that the board of trustees of what was then known as the Wellness Community of Southwest Florida presented to the students and faculty of the Ringling College Interior Design program during the facility's planning stages in 2006.

For 10 years after the nonprofit organization opened its first southwest Florida office in 1996, the Wellness Community provided its services free of charge to thousands of cancer patients, survivors and caregivers annually from a 4,500-square-foot commercial space in a south Sarasota strip mall.

"As the organization grew naturally, we were looking to expand our space and the hope was that we would be able to stay where we were located -- that is, until we partnered with Ringling students who spent a great deal of time interviewing the participants and the board to get a feel for what we really wanted to get out of the organization,'' says CFBH Program Director Andrea Feldmar.

Participants from outside the board included cancer survivors and patients undergoing treatment who provided personal insights into how the Wellness Community could improve and promote the best possible healing environment in its new facility. Kimberly Doucette, one of the six Ringling students who participated in the project under the leadership of Ringling faculty Adviser Jill Eleazer, recalls the interview process.

"We all went into the project with a real passion for sustainable design, but the idea that we could utilize that design to positively impact people who are going through what is likely the most difficult time of their life was what truly made it such an exciting real-world project,'' Doucette says.

Physicians and medical professionals also participated in the interview process, which revealed that the overwhelming majority of participants desired more green space.

"We received a lot of feedback requesting a place with lots of natural light; a peaceful and serene environment removed from traffic and pollution. It quickly came to our attention that there was no way we could create that vision where we were located, so we looked for a spot where we could really utilize the natural environment and that's how we found the Lakewood Ranch site. It seemed like a natural fit to become a LEED-certified green space after we heard what the participants wanted,'' Feldmar says.

Design For Healing

After deciding on a location, the Wellness Community embarked on a $6.1 million project, financed by philanthropic donations and grants, to build the CFBH from the ground up. Carlson Studio Architecture designed the building, which was constructed by Willis A. Smith Construction. The landscaping at CFBH, which received the Environmental and Sustainability Honor from the Florida Chapter of the American Association for Landscape Architects (FASLA) in 2012, was designed and constructed by David. W Young (DWY) Landscaping.

Four years and a two name changes since its inception (the organization was later known as the Cancer Support Community before settling on its permanent name), the Center for Building Hope arrived in Lakewood Ranch. The CFBH opened the doors of its 2.2 acre state-of-the-art, LEED Gold-certified facility located on five acres of land backing up to a 300-acre wetland nature preserve, in October 2010.

"We're all about providing support services and all of the programs we provide have a clinical basis that is supported by research,'' says Feldmar, who cites the scientific evidence in "Your Brain on Nature'' as an example of the CFBH ideology supporting the connection between the environment, mind and body.

"There is a great deal of data to support the effects of environment on one's attitude and healing abilities. Every detail of this space, right down to the color of the paint, is rooted in evidence-based research. Your shoulders fall from your ears when you walk in because it's a warm, relaxing environment -- not sterile like a hospital. With a cancer diagnosis, you're a ball of stress. When people walk in here and take that deep, relaxing breath that brings some stress-relieving oxygen to the brain. There's the physical component of that mind-body connection already at work,'' Feldmar says.

As a LEED-certified green building, the CFBH design reflects thoughtful planning in the water efficient landscaping, including bio-retention gardens with carefully selected plants and the use of recycled products.

"Daylight hits you everywhere you go in that building,'' Doucette says. "The facility's two buildings are built on an east-west access separated by these curving arches. The organic forms have a natural flow, and all those elements really come together to create such a restful, calm and restorative atmosphere.''

Doucette credits the CFBH project in part for the passion for sustainable design she brings to the table today as Principal Designer at Environmental Interiors Design Studio (Studio EI) in Sarasota.

"To this day, I still consider people first in my projects,'' she says.

Today's Ringling design students visit the center to learn about the value of understanding the culture of the people for whom they design spaces.

"Going into the project, it wasn't always easy to visualize the value of all that work. After the fact, though, it's so clear when you walk in how valuable this space is to people who are sick,'' Feldmar says.

Helping The Whole Family

The interior space at Center for Building Hope features a studio for exercise and meditation, a teaching kitchen where nutritionists and culinary professionals provide healthy meal demos geared toward cancer patients, an expressive arts studio for children's therapy, gallery spaces for patients, family members and artists, an internet cafe and an "Ask the Doctor'' living area for educational programs and support group meetings. 

"Our focus is on education and empowering people with valuable knowledge to improve their daily lives,'' says Feldmar.

Participants can grow and harvest fresh, medicinal and nutritious herbs and participate in Tai Chi classes in the horticultural healing gardens, walk the low-impact turf nature trail around the on-site pond and explore the labyrinth garden.

The CFBH also puts special emphasis on providing support services for caregivers and family members -- particularly children. The Expressive Arts Therapy Room for children was created in response to a participating cancer patient and single mother of three who said she wanted to spend more time at the facility, but needed a place for her children.

Since opening its doors in 2010, the CFBH has tripled its number of participants, with more than 2,000 individuals attending one or more programs on a regular basis.

All support services at the CFBH are provided free of charge. At an average cost of $58 per hour, the CFBH provides more than 25,000 hours of free support each year to families affected by cancer. Services include individual counseling, exercise and nutritional programs, workshops with physicians and experts, networking groups and children’s programs.

The programs at the CFBH receive funding from revenues generated by Brides Against Breast Cancer, a national nonprofit organization the CFBH acquired in December 2011 and relocated from Portland, OR to Lakewood Ranch, as well as from grants and philanthropic donations.

"What I love about the Center for Building Hope is that there are so many paths to take, depending on what a person wants each day. You may think, 'What will serve me better today? Would I rather take a group class or a peaceful walk around the nature trail to think and relax?' It's a space designed for people to get whatever they need out of it,'' Doucette says.

"I still carry the philosophy, 'If you're going to make a space, make it a healthy space that you feel good being in.' I think the Center for Building Hope really embodies that philosophy.''

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she generally can be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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