Because the holiday season can be difficult to manage for families battling serious illness, a local support organization has stepped in to make their holiday season a little brighter and a lot more manageable.

Staff at the Donald W. Reynolds Cancer Support House in Fort Smith each year facilitates sponsorships for families who may struggle at Christmas time because of ongoing cancer treatment, said Amy Willadsen, outreach coordinator at the facility. This year, 14 families will benefit from the center’s Christmas Families program.

Cancer treatment can place a financial strain on families during the holidays. But Willadsen said support staff also recognizes that patients undergoing treatment may not have the energy to do all that the holiday season demands, especially to meet the expectations of children at home.

Willadsen said they work to identify families who have one of their own receiving cancer treatment but who also have children living at home. Then, those families are partnered with a volunteer family from the community who has committed to providing gifts and a food basket to help with the needs of the season.

But even after the holidays, area residents faced with a diagnosis of cancer can benefit from an abundance of services offered by the cancer support house, the largest free-standing facility of its kind in the nation, Willadsen said.

The 22,000-square-foot facility offers a variety of nonmedical support programs for those who have been diagnosed with cancer. Patients may come to the center for items like wigs, ostomy supplies, and even prosthetics for patients who have undergone mastectomy surgery.

Willadsen said all services are free of cost to the recipients with supplies either donated or purchased with financial donations or through grant funding.

“We couldn’t do what we do without partners in the community,” Willadsen said.

Another essential program provided by the organization are support groups facilitated by a licensed counselor. Julie Moncrief, patient services manager at the support house, said research shows patients receive treatment better when they are able to interact with others and share their experiences.

“They get to be in a group with other people who have heard those same words, ‘You have cancer,’” Moncrief said.

Support groups are comprised of a great mix of people including newly diagnosed patients, patients undergoing various treatments and survivors, Moncrief said. There is even a group specifically for kids, Kids Kicking Cancer, which is an activity based group for both kids with cancer and kids who may have a family member battling the disease.

Willadsen said the cancer support house serves residents from a 14-county area in both western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. As many as 5,000 people are served each year with up to 500 newly diagnosed patients seeking support in that time period.

“Chances are (area residents) know someone today or will know someone in the next 90 days that would qualify for our services,” Willadsen said.

The importance of donations and volunteers was emphasized by Willadsen.

“Our services depend greatly on volunteers that can give regularly of their time,” she said. In addition, the center keeps a wish list of items that can be donated that will benefit those receiving services from the facility.