GREENSBORO — Louise Grape went into denial when she first heard the news.
Hirsch Wellness Network, the nonprofit that Grape founded in 2007, had been offering free art and wellness classes in person to cancer patients, survivors and their caregivers.
But on March 16, the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic prompted Cone Health to shut down patient support programs. That included Hirsch artist-in-residence activities at the Cancer Center.
Grape realized that other Hirsch healing arts programs in its Hirsch Center at Revolution Mill would have to halt, too.
"My heart was hurting, that I thought we couldn't do it," said Grape, a breast cancer survivor herself.
The Hirsch board of directors sprung into action.
Thanks to board member and tech guru Bill Payne, Hirsch moved its classes online to Zoom video conferencing within four days. All but a swimming class at Club Fitness continued.
At Hirsch, those affected by cancer found others who shared their ups and downs.
"They needed what we offer — that inspiration, confidence-building, community support, activities that inspire people," Grape said.
"For the people who couldn’t come to classes — because maybe they’ve moved away, maybe they’re too sick to come, maybe they’re not confident — they are willing to take a chance on Zoom," she said. "They don't have to get in a car."
"Plus we found we can have more people attending classes online than in person because of space," she added.
She's also noticing more men attending.
This week, Hirsch Wellness Network will hold the fundraising event that keeps those programs, classes and workshops free.
Its 12th annual Art Lives Here silent auction will be held online, not in person, because of the pandemic.
Bidding will run from Sept. 26-Oct. 3 at hirschwellnessnetwork.org. A live-streaming event is from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 3.
Hirsch also bought gift cards from local restaurants to sell to the highest bidders. That supports both restaurants and Hirsch.
The artists' response has amazed Grape. They have donated about 190 pieces of original art to be sold at the silent auction.
"The majority said (they) are so excited to be part of something that feels like there’s a purpose in it," Grape said. "They want to contribute."
They have created paintings and mixed media, ceramics, 3D art, fiber arts, photography, prints and book art, jewelry, and metal and glass arts.
Last year's silent art auction raised more than $60,000 from in-person guests in just two hours, Grape said. She aims for even more this year.
Other support this year came in through Giving Tuesday in May, which raised more than $13,000 from the Hirsch board and the public, and the Lunafest Film Festival, which raised nearly $10,000.
Money raised pays Hirsch instructors, buys quality art supplies for program participants, and supports Hirsch operating expenses.
"We just want to be sure we have the funds and the means and the teachers and the stability to continue to do what we do," Grape said. "We’re hearing from people that it’s more important now than ever."
On a recent afternoon, artists Lori Key and Jack Stratton hung donated works in Revolution Mill's Gallery 1250.
They both have long donated their art to the auction. Stratton also has taught for Hirsch. Stratton and his wife, Sara Jane Mann, are both cancer survivors. So is Key.
"We paint for healing ourselves," Key said. "And we paint for healing other people."
Susan Bold and Alex Gaal serve as Hirsch's only paid staff — Bold as full-time program manager, Gaal as part-time program coordinator and artist-in-residence.
Volunteers run a call bank, touching base with participants for whom Hirsch might be their primary source of social interaction. They also deliver food and care packages to Cone Health Cancer Center patients.
Grape, who has worked without pay since she started Hirsch Wellness Network in 2008, named it for her mother, an accomplished artist who died of cancer at age 33. It began with five programs serving 35 participants. In 2019, Hirsch served more than 10,000 participants in attendance at more than 980 programs.
Its Artist in Residence programs at Cone Health provided creative experiences to more than 2,000 patients in treatment, survivors and family members.
Normally, Hirsch in Revolution Mill hosts 20 or so classes a month that attract 200 to 220 people, Grape said. With the pandemic, Hirsch has offered 26 or 27 classes a month. July attendance topped 400.
"As soon as we post the classes, they fill up with reservations," Bold said.
Attendance at weekly yoga classes, taught over Zoom by Triad Yoga Institute, has climbed from 20 per month to 30-plus.
Hirsch also offers Taiji-Qigong energy-enhancing exercises, mindfulness and meditation.
"It's kind of a little silver lining that people are coming to us even more," Grape said.
Participants welcome the chance to connect with others virtually during the pandemic.
"Just being able to see one another and to listen to conversations helped me to feel connected and less alone," one participant wrote after Molly Haile taught a Writing to Heal class on March 18.
Earlier this month, Haile led an online Artist at Home conversation with instructor Susanne Baker. Baker showed her home studio and taught 10 participants how to marble paper.
Later that day, Gaal taught 12 participants how to make suncatchers using colored tissue paper.
Count Margaret Patton among grateful Hirsch program participants.
Patton first attended a class in 2014, the day before her breast cancer surgery. She followed that summer with a class at Hirsch's former location at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant.
Patton put Hirsch classes on the back burner when she returned to work at UNCG. But she returned last fall after she retired.
She took classes in healing arts such as crochet, painting and yoga. She compliments Hirsch's practice of mailing out free materials in advance of a class.
And Patton didn't mind when classes and workshops moved online. Hirsch offered technical support.
Patton likes the workshop participants that she has met in person and through Zoom. Those currently going through cancer treatment feel open to share their stories, she said.
Now, she attends one to three hours of arts and crafts workshops and yoga online, four days a week. She probably attends more now that she doesn't have to drive there.
"These classes really speak to who I am as a person, the things I enjoy — the writing, the arts and crafts, the meditation, the yoga," Patton said.
Hirsch's experience with online classes has expanded the organization's potential, Grape said. She anticipates that its future lineup will include both online and in-person classes and workshops.
"I don't see this going away," Grape said.
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.
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