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Architect of hope

Faith inspires cancer survivor Amanda Winn to design a place where children can draw strength from each other
 
by JoAnn Fox | Photography by Eric Tank
 
As a student at the University of Michigan, Amanda Winn was hard-driving and independent. She graduated in 2009 with dreams of taking the world of architecture by storm, landing a job with a major firm in Grand Rapids. But a life-threatening cancer diagnosis caused a shift in her life’s ambition, setting Amanda on a path to renewed relationship with God and communion with others around a common purpose.
 
The isolation Amanda experienced and witnessed during cancer treatment intersected with her passion for architecture to form a new dream, one that would benefit children with suppressed immune systems and their families. The idea came to her as she helped design elements of a recreational center after her recovery.
 
“Wouldn’t it be great if kids could have a place like that where they could be active and play with each other and be able to form the connections that they so often miss out on?” recalls Amanda. It wasn’t just a passing thought, but a calling that sprang from her Catholic faith and moments of connection with others that had carried her through her illness. “It was something I felt I was uniquely created to start developing.”
 
Amanda’s vision became reality last September, when the Children’s Healing Center (CHC) opened. Located next door to St. Thomas the Apostle School in southeast Grand Rapids, the center is a place where children with weakened immune systems can safely play, interact and learn.
 
A DEVASTATING DIAGNOSIS
Amanda, executive director of the center, knows firsthand what it’s like to go from being young and carefree to dealing with a devastating diagnosis.
 
After graduation, Amanda moved back home with her parents, Scott and Deb, and her sister, Kristin. That
summer, grateful for her first real job in architecture, Amanda began work at AMDG Architects. All summer, she had felt sick and run-down. Her parents encouraged her to see a doctor.
 
Weeks of doctor visits and tests followed. Amanda was just a month shy of her 22nd birthday when she received the diagnosis: fast-growing, stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer.
 
The cancer was discovered in her bone marrow, the lymph nodes in her neck and chest, under her arms,
and in her spleen. Doctors at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital wanted to begin high-dose chemotherapy treatments immediately.
 
“I was brought to my knees,” Amanda recalls.
 
As Amanda battled her illness over the next several months, she was in and out of the hospital, often because of infection and low blood counts resulting from a weakened immune system. She spent hours in isolation and witnessed other, much younger patients experience the same.
 
“Lying there in pain slowed me down to the point where I turned inward, looked inside myself and realized the benefit of reflection and searching my heart – and how powerful that can be,” she recalls.
 
CLINGING TO GOD
Amanda says her family instilled the Catholic faith in her through prayer, faith formation and attending Mass. Her bout with cancer caused her to rely on God and others in a way she’d never needed to before.
 
“There are a couple of things cancer treatment and that struggle brought out,” says Amanda. “One was an awareness of experiencing deeply God’s love through the actions of other people – my medical team, my family, my coworkers – and through just communicating more with God. I’d experienced love, but I was – well, still am – ambitious, driven. … I guess I didn’t feel like I needed to rely on God’s love until I was so sick and couldn’t control (what) I was going through.”
 
Moments of real connection with others, small acts of love and kindness that, in Amanda’s words, “create a big, great life” became her way of breaking through the isolation and making the most of each day during treatment.
 
“I’d be lying in bed and I’d see a nurse come in and I’d want to make her laugh,” Amanda says. “And I’d see all the benefit of that.”
 
Amanda’s plan for getting through treatment also included doing everything in her power to continue
her work with AMDG.
 
“I wanted to hold onto anything that I could that was normal,” says Amanda. “If I was going to have achy bones and feel nauseous and medicated I’d rather be at work feeling bad than in bed pitying myself.
 
“(AMDG) ended up being the place that I needed to help me get through all this mess,” she says.  Another
complete gift from God.”
 
Amanda’s chemotherapy ended in May 2010. Though her body showed no signs of cancer, she felt weaker.
 
“I didn’t realize it was going to take my body more than a year to recover. That’s when I started  emotionally processing things – I was trying to figure out what it was I really wanted in life.”
 
Part of that involved identifying some purpose behind her illness and recovery.
 
“I believe that my diagnosis had to be as severe and as intense as it was in order for it to have the impact on me that it did,” says Amanda. “If it had been some mild form (of cancer), I just would have plowed on with life; I wouldn’t have stopped.”
 
In fall 2010, Amanda energetically jumped into bringing the Children’s Healing Center to fruition with what she describes as the perfect blend of naiveté and ambition.
 
She began by talking with the oncology team at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. She shared the idea
with a nucleus of people who’d supported her through treatment. Eventually she formed a board and then began reaching out to community members.
 
“It was five years of working every single weekend,” says Amanda. “There’s something to doing things well with people and building trust. It transforms into something more than you could ever imagine. God
works in all aspects of your life and he weaves it all together in such a beautiful way.”

A PARTNERSHIP WITH ST. THOMAS

Amanda senses God’s hand in her decision to choose a home in the Fulton Heights neighborhood, and in
her connection to the community of St. Thomas the Apostle School and Church, where she’s a parishioner.
 
“I wanted the community and that’s how I ended up at St. Thomas and how (the center) ended up in this
building,” she says. “I never could have orchestrated that.”
 
Amanda and her team had looked at locations downtown. In early 2014, she read in the St. Thomas Parish
bulletin that a lease was being negotiated for the building at 1530 Fulton St. Hoping it wasn’t too late, she invited St. Thomas' pastor, Father Jim Chelich, to tea.
 
“He was telling me about discussions they were already having with a potential lessee and I almost didn’t
say anything,” says Amanda. “Finally, I worked up the courage to tell him about what I was doing, and by the end we were touring the building.”
 
That summer, “every day I came and walked around the building and prayed,” Amanda says. “I fell on my knees at the door and I prayed for the day that the kids would walk right through the door, their feet pitter-pattering into the center. God’s hand in all of this is so powerful.”
 
Amanda signed the lease on the building on Sept. 12, 2014, and the facility opened to families almost exactly one year later. Collaborations on programming and projects between the center and St. Thomas School and Parish, as well as adjacent Aquinas College, are under way.
 
Amanda is grateful to see the fruits of years of hard work as kids and families come to enjoy the center. Amanda says she finds her greatest joy in community and connecting with others. For her, these  meaningful connections begin and grow by being truly present to another person.
 
“I have a quote on my board at home. It talks about how to really love a person is to run your finger over
their soul until you find a crack and then gently pour yourself into that crack. I like to think that that is how Christ wants to know people. It’s the same approach I want to bring to the center.”
 
 
A SAFE PLACE WHERE KIDS CAN PLAY, INTERACT
The Children’s Healing Center is the nation’s first year-round facility designed as a safe place for children with compromised immune systems and their familiesto play, stay fit and interact.
 
“It’s fundamentally founded on the principles of the Catholic faith and the faith of our staff,” says founder Amanda Winn, “but we welcome everyone.”
 
The center opened in September 2015, with children from neighboring St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School forming a prayer circle around the building and playing a game of red rover.
 
Located at 1530 Fulton St. in Grand Rapids, the center’s bright, modern and super-clean surroundings feature four activity zones: exploratory play, active fitness, technology and art and learning. Backed by broad community support and involvement, the center currently charges its members a modest monthly fee similar to a gym membership.
 
The center is drawing interest from families in cities throughout Michigan. Amanda says the public can get involved by sharing information about the center. The center also is instituting a program called “Play it Forward,” through which families currently using the center sponsor membership for another family later on.
 
To learn more or to contact Amanda, visit the Children’s Health Center website at