Amanda Winn had just graduated from the University of Michigan and was undergoing treatment for stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she thought of an idea to help other people in similar situations.
By the tail end of the months-long treatment for the blood cancer, Winn — who was 21 at the time — had met many other patients and their families who, like her, “were struggling from being isolated and trying to engage back in normal life.”
Her solution was to form the Children’s Healing Center for children, adolescents, teenagers and young adults with cancer, autoimmune disorders or other medical conditions. At the center, they can meet, play or learn in a setting that’s as “germ-free as possible” to reduce the risk of contracting a life-threatening infection. It’s an environment that also benefits youths who have undergone an organ transplant or who have a weakened immune system.
“It just kind of clicked in my mind,” said Winn, the executive director of the Children’s Healing Center who’s in good health and “doing great.”
At the time she first envisioned Children’s Healing Center, Winn was working as an architect and designing a recreational center.
“I thought it would be cool if we could create a place like that for these kids who could not be in public and for multiple years of their life were isolated,” Winn said. “They could come to play with others and families could just have a semblance of normal life” during and after treatment.
“We want to be the transition from health care when they’re stuck in the hospital to kind of bridging that the gap before they can really re-engage,” she said.
Her work over five years to plan out and open the Grand Rapids-based Children’s Healing Center on Fulton Street in Eastown earned Winn recognition as a finalist in the Young Executive category of the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards. She did it while working full time at AMDG Architects in Grand Rapids and devoting nights and weekends to a cause she felt she was “meant to do” given her education and personal experience.
To open the center in September 2015, Winn reached out and sought to network with people who could offer guidance and advice and explained her vision to prospective benefactors. She not only planned the physical space, but learned what it takes to form a nonprofit organization, from establishing governance and structure, developing programs and services, and building relationships with stakeholders, to securing client referrals from local care providers and raising funding.
“I’m a pretty ambitious person, but also a little bit naïve. I just kind of jumped right in,” she said. “A lot of it was just the drive to continually plug away.”
One indication of her drive was the success of the capital campaign. The Children’s Healing Center originally sought to raise $1.8 million. It secured contributions of $2.3 million, plus about another $200,000 in in-kind contributions.
Pat Waring, who chairs the board for the Children’s Healing Center, credits Winn with not just possessing the determination needed to bring her vision to reality but also an entrepreneurial mindset and an ability to clearly articulate her vision. Winn was able to make connections with people who could assist her and to learn what she needed to pursue her vision, Waring said.
“She’s very quick on the switch and has a good idea of what she wants and it was pretty easy to start talking about this organization, her dream and ‘how do we get there,’” said Waring, who first connected with Winn five years ago. “She was the one who sold the story because she has a contagious way of expressing a need and having people respond to it.”
That spirit blends with an ability to think strategically about revenue sources in the years ahead, plan for ways the center will sustain itself financially, and expand into other communities, Waring said.
“She’s not worried about what we’re doing now, she’s thinking about what we’re going to be doing in five years and how we can replicate this model somewhere else,” Waring said.
Nearly a year and a half after opening, the Children’s Healing Center “is going really well,” with some 350 members, Winn said. The center recently formed a young adult group for people 18 to 25 years old, an age group to which Winn can directly relate “because I went through it. I can understand their perspective.”
As the center looks to the future, Winn wants to become involved in research on social and emotional issues and research-based play for children. The center is “still in the process of figuring out what’s out there and where we need to bridge,” she said.
“One of the things we really want to grow in is where exactly in the process are we most needed and how can we really work closely with the health care world,” Winn said. “How can we work with them to really provide some measurable benefit?”
Children's Healing Center:
- Mission: To provide social and emotional healing for kids with weak immune systems and a safe and clean environment through fitness, hands-on learning and socialization.
- Service Area: West Michigan
- Executive director: Amanda Winn
- Number of employees: 6
- Annual budget: $402,000
- Best practices for management: To serve as a role model for staff and to “always be generous and bringing light into the environment that I’m in.” In administering the organization, it’s about “equipping everybody to be leaders and have ownership in what it is they’re responsible for and then training (them), and leading with a mindset that our volunteers and our families and our donors have the power for us to be a successful organization.”