McDonnells to be Honored at Caring House Annual Benefit Gala

Donald And MaryMcDonnell attending a previous Caring House gala

Mark your calendars! Caring House, a non-profit lodging facility for adult Duke cancer patients receiving outpatient care, is preparing to celebrate 31 years of providing a home-away-from- home for DCI patients with its annual Benefit Gala — to be held on January 28 from 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club.

Duke Cancer Institute, Duke Radiation Oncology, Duke Health, The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, and Duke Neurosurgery are among the sponsors.

This year's gala — "A Night Among the Stars" — will honor renowned breast cancer researcher Donald McDonnell, PhD, and his wife Mary McDonnell for more than a decade of support as donors and as volunteers. The two became grandparents for the first time in October 2020.

Past Caring House Benefit Gala honorees include: William J. Fulkerson, Jr., MD, MBA, executive vice president, DUHS; and DCI oncologists Nelson Chao, MD, MBA; James Abbruzzese, MD; and John Kirkpatrick, MD, PhD

Donald McDonnell, PhD, is associate director for Translational Research at DCI, associate director of Basic Science Research in the DCI's Breast Cancer Disease Group, the Glaxo‐Wellcome Professor of Molecular Cancer Biology in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, and a professor in the Department of Medicine. Since coming to Duke in 1994, he has made significant contributions to breast cancer research, which have been instrumental in advancing understanding of the role of estrogen receptor signaling in breast cancer.

After years as an office manager for brokerage firms in Houston and Philadelphia, raising the couple's two sons, and then working as a contractor with the Irish Government to organize internships for Irish college students, Mary McDonnell is now a full-time grandma ("Mimi") and volunteer.

Sheridan van Wagenberg and Sasha Zarzour at Caring House
Sheridan van Wagenberg (left) and Sasha (Zabavin) Zarzour give a tour of the facility in October 2016. Wagenberg retired last year and Zarzour, a cancer survivor and former director of Annual Giving, Caring House, is now executive director.

"We are forever grateful to the McDonnells for their dedication and support of Caring House and our mission," said Sheridan van Wagenberg, who retired as executive director of Caring House last year. "In addition to being a renowned cancer researcher, Donald has always advocated for Caring House at the Duke Cancer Institute, helping to spread awareness of our mission. He also served on our Board of Directors for six years. Mary has been welcoming guests and helping them to feel at home while away from home for more than 10 years. They both have gone above and beyond for our guests."

Mary began volunteering at Caring House at a time when three of siblings who lived in Ireland had been diagnosed with three different types of cancer over a very short period of time.

"Both of our families are in Ireland and being so far away, it was particularly difficult for Mary," said Donald. "She really wanted to do something that could help others in the same position as her family members. Cancer is a very difficult battle for anyone…but this difficulty is compounded when you have to leave the comfort of your own home and the support of family to temporarily relocate to Durham to receive care at the DCI. The mission of Caring House resonated with Mary and she became a volunteer and her enthusiasm for Caring House spurred me to get involved also."

Like all the volunteers at Caring House, Mary said she gets out of it as much as she puts in. 

“I am very grateful to Caring House for the opportunity to serve as a volunteer," she said.

Shared Mary, "I help patients get orientated at the house. I'm there to meet and greet them when they return from their long days at the hospital and do whatever I can to make Caring House a home-away-from-home for them. Just sitting chatting with the guests (patients) is probably the most important things the volunteers do! "

One of her most interesting "assignments," she said, involved scouting out, for a guest, a place to go fishing in the evening after a long day of treatments. 

"Consulting with our boys Eoin and Kevin I identified a very productive fishing hole on the south side of Jordan Lake!" said Mary. "On another occasion, I helped a guest who was staying for an extended period find a workshop where he could do woodwork … his passion."

Peace of Mind

Healing Garden at Caring House
Healing Garden at Caring House

With 18 private bedrooms, a fully equipped community kitchen, a laundry facility, great room, dining room, library, screened-in porch, patio, bird habitat area, koi pond, and gardens, Caring House offers affordable housing, a healing environment, and a positive and supportive community all in one place. Arts programs, specialty massage, music therapy, yoga, and other activities are available for no additional cost to guests.

Funds raised through the annual gala support this mission.

"As Caring House strives to meet the growing demand for affordable lodging for patients receiving treatment at Duke Cancer Institute, we are hoping for a record-breaking gala," said Sasha Zarzour, who has been executive director of Caring House since last May. "All funds raised at our annual benefit go directly towards helping these cancer patients. We are pleased to be part of the world-class continuum of care offered at DCI."

A referral from a clinical social worker or patient advocate is needed for first-time guests. The nightly, subsidized rate at Caring House is $45. The average length of stay for guests is four to six weeks.

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