When you need a friend

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There when you need him: American Cancer Society volunteer Roger Willis, left, helps Tom Brennan of Chicago from the car in front of his home. Willis, who often drives patients to their appointments several times a week, volunteers to take Tom to his treatments. | Mary Compton ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Roger Willis is a good listener.

He listened to his sister, Helen, who lives in West Virginia, when she told him about her treatment for cervical cancer.

“She was telling me how hard it was to go 40 to 50 miles one way to get to her hospital treatments they had set up,” he said.

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Then Willis, a Chicago fireman, listened to his own heart when he pursued volunteer work after sustaining an on-the-job injury.

“I took a fall and was really blessed to wake up,” said Willis, who fell from a building and landed on the concrete. “Whatever it takes to give back.”

And he listened to his daughter when she suggested he get involved with the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program.

And now, as a Road to Recovery volunteer, Willis listens to cancer patients as he drives them to doctor’s appointments and treatment sessions.

“It’s more than driving,” said Willis, who is on duty disability from the fire department since his accident. “You become a listener to the patients. They need someone to talk to... because their family can’t always be with them.”

It’s not unusual for Willis to still get phone calls from patients after they finish treatment — just to chat and catch up.

“You become more than just a driver. You become good friends and family members,” Willis said.

Willis is one of a growing army of health care volunteers providing vital services to patients.

In addition to driving, there are a variety of ways to make an impact at the ACS. Other opportunities include event planning and fundraising, with many young professionals looking to increase their skills and grow their resumés. Other advocacy activities include a summer program that pairs high school students with a research scientist to get them interested in the field of cancer research, as well as work on the legislative front.

Recession’s impact

According to the American Cancer Society, between 10 and 15 percent of patients do not complete treatment because transportation is a barrier. Last year about 17,000 rides were delivered by volunteers throughout Illinois. From 2011 to 2012, all of the areas served by the ACS in Chicagoland experienced an increase in demand for transportation. Some areas were up by 200 percent, said Trish Tangilinan, director of patient care.

With the economy, people just don’t have money for transportation, Willis said.

“People can’t afford taxis, and people can’t afford transportation for themselves to get to treatment,” he said.

Among the areas most in need of drivers are Lake County, DuPage County, West Cook County, the North Shore and the Tinley Park area, Tangilinan said. Much of the driving in Chicago is to community hospitals instead of those in the Loop and medical district. However the ACS can still use drivers in those areas, she said.

Karen Larimer, who is on the board of directors for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago and several of its committees, said that that organization is experiencing an increase in requests for health care services.

“Definitely a higher demand because people tend to be under or not insured at all,” Larimer said. “We do what we can. I know from the perspective of Catholic Charities, the demand and need has increased tremendously.

“We tried to assess, what’s our role there. Do we try to facilitate services or do we try to provide services?” she said.

Building on enthusiasm

Larimer, who is also on the board of directors for the American Heart Association, has seen enthusiasm grow in people interested in donating their time.

While speaking to a group of student nurses on community health, she talked about the volunteer work available at the AHA. The following Saturday, 25 students showed up to help with an education program.

“If there is a call to action, people will respond,” Larimer said. “It’s so exciting that people can latch on to something that they get excited about and do more.”

Chicago resident and breast cancer survivor Lauren Goldberg was called to action shortly after she lost her job as a graphic designer. When she joined the committee for Strides Against Breast Cancer, she did everything from planning to attending press conferences, and tasks including stuffing envelopes, folding T-shirts and passing out fliers.

For the walk, she put together a team of 20 people, all of whom she met online. Together, they raised $13,000. She also volunteers with the Reach for Recovery Program, where she offers one-on-one support to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.

“I really wanted to reach out to other women... but I ended up getting so much back that I didn’t expect,” Goldberg said.

Not only did she get the emotional benefit of helping others, she found and developed skills, such as public speaking, she didn’t realize she had.

“You do get more experience. You learn about other skills you didn’t know you have,” she said. “As an unemployed person, all around, it’s a plus-plus.”

“If you want it to, it can build your resumé,” she said. “It is a way for me to say I have done project management. It’s a way for me to show that I’ve managed people because I brought a whole team together.”

Most of all though, she wants to see these programs continue for survivors and those newly diagnosed, she said.

“You’re giving back,” Goldberg said. “To me, that’s the most important. All the rest is just gravy.”