The story behind ‘Pathways,’ free of charge

Volunteer instructors Pete and Jan Girard (l) with Wendy Thoren (center) and volunteer Nancy Mehr.

No insurance card is needed at Pathways at 31st & Hennepin, which offers classes like Laughter Yoga and Tai Chi to people with life-threatening and chronic illnesses. The founders never once thought about charging.

When the late philanthropist and CIA agent Mike Winton was diagnosed with blood cancer, he received the blessing of his doctors to travel the world looking for alternative therapies. Mike and his wife Penny were particularly impressed with a center in California that treated patients with AIDS.

“There was laughter. There were boxes of Kleenex. It had such a positive atmosphere to it,” Penny said.

They asked the founder, Louise Hay, to open another center in Minneapolis. Instead, Hay challenged them to build their own.

“So we did,” she said.

They initially rented a house “in pretty bad condition” at the 3300 block of Hennepin Avenue. Penny remembers struggling to promote the new center.

“We practically wanted to go out on the sidewalk and drag people in,” she said.

Slowly, the word spread among the medical community.

“Especially among nurses, there was a feeling that the medical experience needed to go beyond the pure science of medicine,” she said. “…Very few doctors really understood how much power an individual has, and what strengths they can draw on.”

Providers and staff said the free business model is virtually unheard of across the country. Penny said she wanted people to walk in and feel empowered to try one-on-one consultations or group classes, rather than stick to “feel-good” options like massage. In addition, providers have the gift of giving their services, she said, and participants know people are volunteering because they care.

“We think this place is a miracle,” said Jan Girard, who teaches Laughter Yoga every Monday with her husband Pete.

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In class, they go through the motions of laughing — saying hee hee hee, ho ho ho, for example — and the action helps bring on real laughter, oxygenating the body and lowering blood pressure.

“One woman hadn’t had feeling in her legs for years, and said her leg was tingling after 45 minutes,” Jan said.

“Little kids laugh all the time,” Pete said. “By the time you’re an adult, you’re lucky if you laugh one time in a day. … We’re trying to let that little kid out.”

Laura Thorpe facilitates a “Soul Collage” class where participants make collage cards to aid expression and self-discovery.

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“It’s your own personal deck of wisdom,” she said.

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Chuck LeBon is a cancer survivor, and he manages past injuries and illnesses. He said he’s religiously tried many different classes, including gratitude journaling.

“There’s certain days where you’re just stuck,” he said.

By writing down what he’s grateful for each day, he finds himself appreciating things he’d otherwise take for granted.

Now with nearly 150 volunteer providers and 8,000 annual visits, Pathways is transitioning from 100 percent donor funding to additional funding sources. And it’s forming new partnerships with outside groups to expand the center’s reach.

“We feel it’s okay to die, but you can have a good positive experience in the process of dying,” Penny said.“We wanted to make people feel that they did have strength, that they could live and live and live until they die. … One of our clients said breast cancer is what I’m doing this year. I just loved that attitude. She’s comfortable.”

Pathways will celebrate its anniversary in a gala Oct. 11 at International Market Square, featuring stories from participants, host Cathy Wurzer of MPR and storyteller Kevin Kling.

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