‘Arms’ provides funds, hugs during cancer treatments

Cristina Nashman felt all alone.

She had moved to the states from Colombia and had no friends or relatives. And she found out she had Stage 3 colon cancer.

Fortunately for her, she found Arms Around Bainbridge. They gave her more than a hug. They gave her financial support so she could avoid being homeless and take steps toward recovery.

While her cancer advanced, she remains positive about her treatment. And positive about Arms Around Bainbridge.

“They not only save lives, they save families,” Nashman said, adding she moved to Bellingham last month to be near her son, who graduated from Bainbridge High School. He is now going to Western Washington University, and she’s been able to get a good job as a bank branch manager.

Nashman said she’s found an apartment and loves her job. And she owes it all to AAB. “I owe my life to them,” she said. “They were so loving and compassionate about my situation.”

Jessica Dubey of AAB said, “She was really, really sick for a while.”

Nashman said: “I love Jessica. I was totally alone.” She added the economic support from AAB that kept her from homelessness “saved my dignity.”

Dubey said that was the main thing AAB was able to help Nashman with. “She was worried about her place to live. She didn’t want to lose her apartment.” By helping with rent, Nashman was “able to scrape by” on other needs, Dubey said.

Nashman came to BI because of a relationship, but when that didn’t last she was on her own. She got a job at a bank, but then got sick with cancer. She tried to get funds from the Family and Medical Leave Act, but hadn’t worked long enough to qualify. That’s when she found AAB.

“She came to us during the (COVID) pandemic,” Dubey said, adding it was “a really hard time for her” because she had many side effects from chemotherapy, such as memory loss.

About a year later, Nashman came back for more help because she needed more surgery and chemo, Dubey said.

Nashman said when she was getting treatment and didn’t feel like cooking or eating, AAB would deliver food to her. Dubey said the chef tailors the meals to adjust for the dietary needs of each client who can “only eat certain things.”

She said staying in touch with Nashman was important. “Sometimes I’d bring her flowers just to cheer her up—the emotional community that we provide.”

Board members

Dubey and Wendy Hupperich are two of the AAB board members

Dubey got involved 18 years ago when a friend had ovarian cancer. She didn’t have good insurance so, “She couldn’t afford all of her expenses. She couldn’t buy groceries.”

Friends wanted to do something. Since they were all swimmers they decided to do this “crazy thing” and swim around BI as a fundraiser. “The master swim team is a tight-knit community,” Dubey said. “The event was really fun.”

After the AAB nonprofit was formed, Dubey was asked to join the board.

Helpline, doctors, caregivers and other organizations refer potential clients to AAB. If the person has a catastrophic illness that impacts their ability to work then AAB can provide short-term financial assistance “to fill the gaps.” They help with rent, car repairs, groceries, “even music lessons for their kids,” Dubey said.

AAB doesn’t ask for medical records or tax returns. But two volunteers go over their expenses with them to find income shortfalls. They can help for three to six months — “to get them through that next round of chemo,” Dubey said, until they can return to work.

She said sometimes someone might just need “one-time help with something”— like a wheelchair.

Dubey said sometimes AAB might actually pay a landlord directly because if the client has a brain tumor, for instance, they may have a hard time managing money and keeping track of bills.

Of course, AAB can’t do it all. They don’t usually pay mortgages. They aren’t mental health professionals. And they can’t help people find housing — “which is a huge, huge issue as well,” Dubey said. But they do refer people to others who can help. “It’s hard for an individual to know where to go.”

The AAB board meets monthly to decide how to distribute funds. “It can be a lot to decide” who to help, how much and for how long. “It’s tailored to every individual situation,” Dubey said.

The AAB budget is about $160,000 a year. About $50K comes from the annual swim, with the rest coming from donations and calendar sales. An annual Bingo event “fell by the wayside during COVID,” but they’re hoping to bring it back.

Hupperich initially got involved as a swimmer. She’s done the event for three years where they swim anywhere from one to four miles. She likes the event because it’s for a cause rather than competition. It’s also a safe way to swim the open waters because there are kayaks and boaters all along the way.

She said the name Arms Around Bainbridge literally is symbolized by the swimmers arms going around the island, along with symbolizing the emotional and financial support provided.

Hupperich likes that AAB offers support to fill in where others can’t—without the red tape. “It’s an extra layer of support” beyond what government and other social service groups can provide.

She said they work with recipients as a bridge until they can find other longer-sustainable help. If their situation is more chronic, AAB can bridge the gap to give them more time to find other resources. If their situation is terminal, AAB can provide some relief to the client and the family.

That’s what happened at the end of life for Marie-Elena Baker. The longtime Bainbridge resident and her husband raised three sons here, and she worked in the Bainbridge High School theater department for more than 15 years.

She was often referred to as “Ma Baker” by friends, family and students.

Baker reached out to AAB in July 2022 after receiving a devastating pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Until she died in April, AAB provided Baker with financial support so that she could focus on her health and family.

Baker said that AAB’s financial and emotional support “is the reason I am able to stay positive and stay alive for as long as I did.”

The last thing AAB did for Baker was help her family move her to Florida, where she went into hospice and died shortly thereafter.

Dubey said at times the board feels overwhelmed by all the needs. “So many times we sit around the table and wonder how this country can function this way,” she said.

As examples, she mentioned a family who can’t afford a mortgage so they have to refinance and end up with a costly balloon payment. Or someone who can’t get on disability even though it’s obvious they have issues and can’t work.

“We have to take care of each other. Nobody out there will take care of our community. It’s not huge numbers on paper. But what we can do makes it feel tangible.”

Like Dubey, Hupperich said it’s unfortunate that groups like AAB are “a necessity in our society. Arms provides a sense of relief to allow people to heal,” she said. “Personally I don’t think our health care system focuses” on that—with all the paperwork and high costs.

She said the people they work with are facing a double crisis of health and finances. “We provide relief with the finances piece so they can focus their limited energy on getting better.”