Charity Loans Cottages To Cancer Survivors

By Jim Barber 5/18/10 |

Cottage 1
Family at a Huntsville, Ontario cottage
Seana O'Neill was sitting on her dock on Clement Lake in Wilberforce, Ontario, in the early summer of 2002, when she realized that once she returned to Toronto for work her Haliburton-area cottage was going to sit vacant for weeks. Hence, the idea for Cottage Dreams, which lends cottages to cancer survivors.

"My mom is a two-time survivor of breast cancer, and we had a cottage growing up on Lake of Bays in Muskoka, so we spent a huge amount of time there. It just made sense that when I had my own cottage, and going through the cancer scares with my mom, that we could do something with it," O'Neill tells

She decided to look into lending her cottage to survivors of cancer, as a way for them to get away with friends or family and celebrate survivorship, and see if other cottage owners would be willing to do the same thing.

"I tried to get rid of the idea, because it didn't fit into my world to do anything like this, because I was going back to the film industry, but it wouldn't leave me," she says. "So I started looking into it, through contracting a lawyer, contacting a cottage rental agent, and contacting my insurance broker saying, 'I've come up with this idea, and I have narrowed it down to a plan. What do you think?'"

The rental agent loved the idea, she says, and started sending letters to her clients about the idea. The first 10 cottages were signed up within two weeks. The insurance agent also said it could work, and that he could provide insurance on top of the insurance the cottage owner already had.  And then the lawyer that I had gone to said, 'No, it will never work.' So I just went and got a different lawyer."

Cottage 2
One of the 600 Cottage Dreams properties
Almost a year after she came up with the idea for Cottage Dreams, the first six families were placed. All the legwork was originally done by O'Neill, but now, seven years later, Cottage Dreams has a paid staff of four, including O'Neill, as well as a volunteer board of directors, a host of volunteers, charitable status, and an annual budget of around $350,000.

"There is one cottage coordinator, one visitor coordinator, and they deal with the applicants from the beginning of their first inputting of a cottage on their application through all of the vetting and getting references checked and getting doctors to send back their forms," O'Neill explains.

"And then there's myself. I am doing all the fundraising, marketing and PR, and raising awareness, and also overseeing the organization itself in terms of governance and the board, and program numbers and reaching our goals and setting those goals. And then there is one other person in there who really is an administration person."

O'Neill feels there are very few, if any, resources or programs out there for survivors.

"My goal was always to look at the people who are not paid attention to, and survivors are not paid attention to in the cancer world," she says. "There's money and support for research; there's money and support and programming for when you are in treatment; there is support and money for when you are in palliative care. But there's absolutely nothing out there to celebrate the hundreds of thousands of people who are surviving cancer these days.

"What I have learned is that so many people, when they are fighting this terrible disease, along with their loved ones, they don't know what's going to happen; there's such an element of fear and it's so draining, emotionally, financially, spiritually and physically."

Then when the good news comes that the patient is cancer free, after spending so much energy, and time thinking of themselves as cancer patients, there is very little to help them transition to being cancer survivors and getting on with their lives.

Cottage 3
cancer survivor Brandon and his father, Mike
"I thought, what better place to be than with your family, away from the appointments and all the routines you have had to go through. What better place to go than to a cottage," O'Neill explains.

Any cottage owner thinking about lending out his or her place can go and fill out the questionnaire.

"They fill in their contact information, and then there's about 20 questions regarding amenities, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the lake it's on. It's not unlike a normal rental sheet," O'Neill says. "We need to know if there is a fireplace, dishwasher, DVD player a dock, and the owner can also upload pictures, which we love. And they are asked if they want a tax receipt, and if so, how much would their cottage go for, for a week."

The cottage coordinator would then look over the application, and contact the owner for additional information, and ask about availability.

"The criteria is that it has to be waterfront, and they have to have a landline, or cell phone reception. They have to have indoor plumbing, and they have to be within 30 to 45 minutes of a health care centre, which could mean a little family practice of some doctor in the town or a hospital," O'Neill adds.

Cottage Dreams also arranges for a cleaner to come in and evaluate the state of the cottage before the rental, to ensure things are left as they are by the visitors.

In addition to the insurance policy of the owners, Cottage Dreams also has a $5 million policy for the week —  $3 million personal liability and $2 million for property damage.

Arrangements are made between the owner and the visitors as to when and how keys are picked up. O'Neill said most cottages have lock boxes with codes these days. Depending on the scenario, the visitors have to bring their own linen and towels, food and personal care items. They will also have to provide their own transportation to and from the cottage.

Cottage 4
Another Ontario cottage on loan
For the visitors, Cottage Dreams wants applicants (of any age) to be within 18 months of completing their treatment, and O'Neill actually encourages people to apply while still in treatment. This can also be done through the website.

O'Neill has contacts with all the major cancer care centres in Ontario, and is making inroads in British Columbia and Nova Scotia to expand the program. Cottage Dreams has placed bookmarks and other information in waiting rooms and resources centres, and many of the staff of the cancer centres will broach the Cottage Dreams concept to their patients.

The patients and survivors must apply as well and can do that online.

"It's just a form that asks who they are, and all their contact information, and they can have up to six people, so it's five guests plus themselves," O'Neill says.  "We need all their ages so we can match the cottage appropriately. And they have a medical form that their doctor has to sign off on, to support their application, and there's a legal waiver releasing the owners and us from any liability. We also ask them where they want to go and when."

Every effort is made to match up the applicant with the location and time they would like to go, but O'Neill says it is difficult in July and August because many of the cottage owners are using their places that time of year. The program runs from June 1 until December 31.

At present, there are 600 cottages in the Cottage Dreams database, and in 2009, there were about 250 matches, although a handful dropped out. There is no cancellation fee for this, as O'Neill explains that, in almost every instance, there was a compelling medical reason.

O'Neill says the traditional cottage country spots of Central Ontario are the busiest destination points, but places like Sudbury, North Bay, the Ottawa Valley and parts of southwestern Ontario, like the Sarnia area and Pelee Island, are having cottage owners come forward. The visitors are also coming from across the province.

Cottage Dreams has received nothing but positive feedback from both the cottage owners and the visitors, says O'Neill, and for the founder herself, she continually finds it rewarding. "I am just completely thrilled that we've made such a difference and how a good idea is just so obvious. I think this was meant for me to do. And as I say to my mom all the time, I am earning my wings."


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