Benefield: Santa Rosa woman transforms yards to help support cancer patients
Julie Portelli didn’t know what she wanted. But she knew she needed something.
Portelli, who has neuroendocrine cancer, saw a flyer for Deep Breath Healing Gardens at an oncology office.
It advertised a free service for cancer patients in which a corner of their yard could be transformed into a place of peace and renewal.
Healing. Private. Themed. All custom-made to create comfort for someone dealing with cancer.
So Portelli called. But she didn’t know exactly what she was asking for, what was available to her.
“I didn’t have a vision,” she said. “I was just grateful this was available. I would have taken anything she would have given me.”
“She” is Anne-Marie Allen.
Allen, who with her husband, Jeff, runs the award-winning landscaping firm Allen Land Design in Santa Rosa, has begun a second-act of sorts in her career.
She has launched a nonprofit landscape operation in which she creates, free of charge, small garden spaces for people dealing with cancer.
She gets referrals from health care providers, sometimes takes direct calls from patients and sometimes people just stumble upon her.
When a connection is made Allen starts her personal process of inquiry — what do people want from the space, what do they need, what are their favorite colors, what type of theme might work?
And then she makes it appear.
“She brought these beautiful planters and plants and set up some brand new chairs, beautiful wood chairs, made this beautiful area,” Portelli said. “It was just a beautiful experience. I felt so cared for by this service, by this woman.”
The idea for Deep Breath Healing Gardens was born a few years ago when a dear friend who lives in Germany was diagnosed with cancer. Living so far away, Allen felt a little lost in how to offer comfort to her friend.
Then she came upon an idea.
She tapped the woman’s husband and two daughters to be in cahoots with her. She shipped a lounge chair, a rug and side table and twinkly lights to them.
The woman’s family set it up so it was ready when she returned the first day of her chemotherapy treatment.
It was a deeply meaningful hit.
Allen knew she was onto something and decided to replicate this effort for strangers. And she is committed to doing it free of charge.
She’s gotten donations, she’s funded some herself, she set up a short term GoFundMe account and she has tapped friends and neighbors.
She has gotten significant in-kind donations from the likes of Urban Tree Farm, Emerisa Growers and Devil Mountain Nursery.
But as a person who has spent more than a quarter-century running a small business, she knows she needs a sustainable funding model, so she linked up with the North Bay Cancer Alliance, a nonprofit that now manages donations made to Deep Breath Healing Garden and allows any giving to be a tax write-off.
Individual garden costs can vary, but the average has been about $1,500, Allen said.
“My goal is not to turn down any gardens,” Allen said.
The North Bay Cancer Alliance, which offers support services including help with transportation to medical treatments and financial assistance, got behind Deep Breath Healing Gardens because the impacts feel meaningful and immediate.
“I think there is a whole lot of appreciation for what she does,” said Kent Corley, executive director of the cancer alliance.
Since she launched in September of 2021, she’s created 14 home oases for clients.
She works March through October, fitting the Deep Breath Healing projects in between her Allen Land Design work.
On a recent morning, Allen met with Tara Johnson, a mom of two, chief operating officer at an insurance tracking firm and first-time breast cancer fighter.
Allen is turning a corner of Johnson’s west Santa Rosa yard into her own space.
There will be concrete planters, two levels, colorful flower pots and two chairs with a foot stool. There will be hanging art on the surrounding fence.
“I initially was kind of thinking, do I need something like that? And instantly I was like yeah I’m a mom of two, I’ve got a tough job, I’m working 50 hours a week most of the time, it would be really nice to have a space to just come and sit, a space that’s my own,” Johnson said.
“It’s really going to rejuvenate me,” she said.
Allen typically asks clients if they want to get their hands dirty and help build the gardens, or would they rather be surprised. Either way is OK with Allen.
Johnson, for one, is ready to dig in.
“Absolutely,” she said. “I love to get my hands dirty and it’s really important for me to exercise right now, so any time I can be lifting and moving and that kind of stuff? I love yard work because you can Zen out but also do some physical labor at the same time and then turn around and say, ‘look what I did today.’”
For Jen Utsch, her garden space gave her some privacy and was an open invitation to sit in the sun — a place she finds infinitely healing.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2020, Utsch is a deep believer in getting her mind and body into a place of healing. The outdoors, the sunshine, help her get there.
“I just wanted a place where I could sit out and have my own little nature pod where I could feel safe and wonderful,” she said. “If you have a space outside, in the sunshine, it’s the best medicine in the world. Your body is able to go into another layer of rest.”
“That is where the Zen gardens are worth their weight in gold,” she said.
Her garden space, thanks to Allen, allows her to recharge.
“If you can’t, it’s like getting in a car that has no gas,” she said.
Allen has spent her professional lifetime building outdoor spaces for people. Her work has been honored by Sunset Magazine.
But the kudos she gets from clients of Deep Breath Healing Gardens are on a different level.
They use words like magical to describe Allen. Welcoming. Class. Intuitive. Kind. Generous.
“There is a lot of crappy (stuff) that goes with being a cancer patient,” Portelli said.
There are doctors appointments, there are scans and there is waiting. Waiting for lab results, waiting for calls back, waiting for the next round of whatever comes next.
Healing gardens give people the space to restore their energy for all of the unspoken stresses that health issues can bring.
For Portelli, her space also fills her with gratefulness. For health, for strength and for Allen.
“To sit in that good feeling that Anne-Marie left me with — of kindness and generosity — and that I matter.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or email@example.com. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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