August 24, 2012

Shelter and support

Memories of loved ones lead volunteers to care for cancer patients at ‘The Good House’

Known for her upbeat, dynamic approach to Catholic education, Gina Fleming is a new assistant superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. Here, she greets a student with a high-five during her six years as principal of Holy Name School in Beech Grove. (Submitted photo)

St. Barnabas School students, then fourth-graders, pose for a class photo after planting flowers in “Lisa’s Garden” at “The Good House” in downtown Indianapolis. (Submitted photo by Melanie Carr) Click for a larger version.

By Mary Ann Garber

Hope and friendship are the focus at “The Good House” in Indianapolis, a temporary home for bone marrow transplant patients and their families.

The historic house at 527 N. College Ave. has been lovingly restored and renovated by volunteers to provide free lodging for people living with cancer and their relatives in need of a place to stay during medical treatments at Indiana University Health’s bone marrow transplant clinic several miles away.

The house was named for the late Dr. Robert Alan Good, a native of Minnesota who performed the first successful human bone marrow transplant and is considered a founder of modern immunology.

It was aptly named by St. Barnabas parishioner and “Good House” volunteer Becky Armbruster of Indianapolis, who said “it is a good place to be during a difficult time.”

Hundreds of St. Barnabas parishioners and students have embraced this hospitality ministry as volunteers since it was organized in 2010 under the leadership of Armbruster, a Roncalli High School graduate, and Reid Latimer, a parishioner and Indianapolis firefighter.

From grief to service

The desire to help others and honor the memory of their loved ones motivated Armbruster and Latimer to team up as principal volunteers for this unique community ministry after they met at the transplant clinic.

Four years ago, Armbruster’s husband, Doug, also a Roncalli graduate, died of complications from graft versus host disease during his cancer treatments.

Two years ago, on Aug. 26, Latimer’s wife, Lisa, lost her courageous battle against acute lymphoblastic leukemia—a valiant fight that required undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

Lisa’s husband and their son, Grant, now a sixth-grade student at St. Barnabas School, were joined during her cancer journey and later in their grief by many parish friends, who expressed their love and sorrow by organizing a volunteer group in her honor to help other cancer patients and their families.

“Lisa’s Warriors,” about 100 volunteers from the Indianapolis South Deanery parish, clean the four-bedroom house as well as prepare meals, do yard work and provide welcome baskets for guests.

“We received support from so many people,” Reid Latimer said, recalling Lisa’s extended illness.

“That’s the reason I felt it was important to get involved in trying to provide housing for patients that are going through a bone marrow transplant and their families,” he said. “My family and the fire department were incredibly supportive. The St. Barnabas community was just fantastic with meals, rides, support, prayers, everything we needed. It was kind of overwhelming how much support we got and how comforting that is. It takes some of the worries away.”

Sometimes he is asked if it is hard to volunteer for this ministry.

“I totally understand what these people are going through, and just want to help in whatever way I can,” Latimer said. “This is a fantastic way to do it and honor her.”

Even in the face of health setbacks, he said, “Lisa would say, ‘When I get through this, I want to try to help other people.’ … She fought very hard.” 

The generosity of children

Since their fourth-grade year, Grant’s classmates at St. Barnabas School have helped build birdhouses, create a decorative stone pathway, plant a colorful flower garden in Lisa’s memory, purchase a stone bench for the yard and clean rooms at “The Good House” to make it more cheerful for guests.

Even more amazing, the children decided to participate in a day of service there instead of going on a class field trip.

“I think it’s a tremendous thing for them to learn to give back,” Latimer said. “Here are 10- and

11-year-old kids that are making a positive contribution to other people. It’s really sweet to see that.

“We want this house and what we’re doing here to be very positive,” he said. “It’s a fantastic ministry. … I think our goal is just to make people’s lives a little easier, a little bit less stressful. … It’s an incredible sense of joy for me to, in some way, honor my wife.”

Long bedside vigils

Armbruster said she “pretty much lived at the hospital and slept in a chair next to his bed” during her husband’s illness even though she lived in Indianapolis.

“My family made it possible for me to be there with him all the time,” she said. “Everything was taken care of so I was able to spend all that time with him. Your life gets totally interrupted and stopped when you [or a loved one] get a [cancer] diagnosis. You don’t think about anything but what you have to do every day.”

Bone marrow transplant patients are required to stay within a few miles of the hospital during outpatient treatments that can last for 30 days, Armbruster said, but that becomes very costly if families must pay for their housing and meals.

“I experienced so much compassion [when Doug was sick] that I wanted to give back and help other people experience that compassion,” she said. “I was trying to think of something that would be positive. … People who stay here talk about how amazing and wonderful it is that total strangers want to help them.”

Since the ministry began two years ago, Armbruster said, about 150 patients and families have stayed there.

“We’re so blessed to have a wonderful cancer treatment center in Indianapolis,” she said, “and we need to do our part in that to help the patients and their families that come here [from other cities] by providing support for them. … We’re starting small, but we can do this. I have gained so much from all this. I learned that to give back is a huge blessing for yourself.”

New volunteers are welcome

St. Barnabas parishioners Lori Hofmann and Shaune Harlow coordinate meals and household chores by Lisa’s Warriors. They appreciate new volunteers.

“We need help with meals, cleaning, maintenance and lawn care,” Hofmann said. “The nurses and transplant coordinators help at the house too. We are so thankful for our volunteers. I needed something like this to give back, and it has helped me in so many ways.”

Indianapolis resident Amy Stephens, a relative of the Armbruster family, helps with fundraising and interior decorating accented by flowers from Lisa’s garden.

“From a small thing, it’s going to grow,” Stephens said. “It’s exciting.”

Prayers are answered in sometimes surprising ways for this hospitality ministry based on love and concern for people in need.

The first patient and family members arrived at “The Good House” on Armbruster’s late husband’s birthday. It was also the patient’s birthday, rather amazing statistical odds. But with God, all things are possible.

(For information about how to help with “The Good House” ministry, send an e-mail to Lori Hofmann at

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