New Jersey is home to many ambitious and talented women who juggle family, career, and home. A select few of these women are also extremely busy building their own companies to help better manage the balance of work and family. At NJMOM, we want to highlight these extraordinary women building New Jersey businesses, and learn the secret to their success.
Mary’s Place by the Sea Founder and NJMOMpreneur:
Michele Gannon is the founder and President of Mary’s Place by the Sea in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a retreat for women who are receiving treatment for cancer. Their brand new spacious and beachy facility includes a spa for oncology massage, treatment centers for reiki, guided meditation, counseling, prayer, and expressive writing, and an in-house organic chef that educates guests in the importance of eating for healing. Above all, Mary’s Place by the Sea is an intimate home that opens its arms to fellow sisters and friends to unwind, connect, and relax. What’s more is that these services, and many more, are completely free to their guests. This local organization depends on the donations of its community, as most of last year’s $1.3 million in donations came from Ocean Grove’s surrounding areas, despite the fact that Mary’s Place takes in guests from across the country. Michele’s vision for Mary’s Place came from a place of introspection and passion, as her spirituality moved her to act on her idea to create a nonprofit organization from the ground up, despite what people said about the difficulty she might face. Since its inception in 2009, Michele and her team have evolved the organization’s mission to touch lives on a grander scale with the opening of their very own eight-bedroom hotel on Main Avenue in Ocean Grove.
NJMOM had the honor of meeting Michele at Mary’s Place to discuss her journey as a mother of three who decided to start a project with a concept which had never before been attempted. With us, she shared moments of inspiration, stories of roadblocks and growing pains, and discussed her children’s involvement with Mary’s Place and the Gannon family business, Dunes Boardwalk Cafe.
NJMOM: What inspired you to come up with the idea for Mary’s Place by the Sea?
Michele: I was home in January of 2009 and I just had the flu – it was a silly illness and I was laying in bed and my kids were saying, “Are you better? Can you get up, can you get up? What’s wrong with you, you’re not working!” I remember a month later, I said to my husband, “I wonder what a woman does when she has a long-term illness. Who is giving her permission to be sick, get better, and to heal?” If we’re not paying enough attention to our bodies and this urgency inside, this big red flag, then it’s probably prolonging all the illnesses. These were just my thoughts, and I started obsessing about it. I was praying about it, I’m a very prayerful person, and I was saying, “What are you telling me to do?” Jesus’ Mother Mary came to me in a dream with these beautiful blue eyes and a statue face, and she was walking me down down Ocean Avenue in Ocean Grove, putting it all in my heart – this is what it’s going to be. So I knew something was stirring and I just went to my accountant and said, “I think I’m going to establish a nonprofit,” and he said, “You’re crazy, that’s insane! You’re going to be fundraising until the day you die.” And I said, “Okay, can I have the application?”
I saw a photo of Maria McKeon (Vice President of Mary’s Place), she was pictured doing a marathon for a friend of hers who had a sarcoma in her stomach. I saw her at the gym and said, “Hey, I have this idea and I don’t know if it makes any sense, but I need to meet the people you know.” I wanted her to connect me. We’re running on the treadmill and I’m telling her the idea and she said, “Wow, that sounds really beautiful, I’ll do it with you.” So then it was just like that. We rented space, a bed and breakfast on Ocean Avenue, and it was amazing. I just went by myself to I look at it, and there was this wooden sign on the wall that said, “Santa Maria.” I asked, “What was this place?” and the owner said, “This was a retreat home for the Blessed Mother Nuns.” Mary’s Place by the Sea just came out – it was amazing how it all came together. We threw together a website, we had a concert in June 2009 at the Paramount Theatre and launched the mission. It was a “friendraiser,” with 800 friends who said they would support this, and that’s how we started raising money.
We rented two bedrooms which was helping the owners of the B&B supplement their income, but in the summer months they said that we had too many people. We had a following and we had to go, which was after a year. Then I found a single family home and rented that for five years, and started building a board while learning as we went. I really say that because it was just having the passion and meeting the guests every day – we call them guests. One by one, as we met them and talked to them, they told us what they needed, what would help, where they wanted to be. So that mission, which was a one-liner, became a paragraph; we’re always evolving. The whole goal and mission is to give these women a place for them to just take a breath and start thinking about what’s going on, because as women, we push it all away – we go into survival mode and keep driving forward, and eventually it catches up with you. So Mary’s Place is that place to help you along on that path, like the path that I was walking.
NJMOM: When did you know it was time to build your own space?
Michele: When our board got together a few years ago and we were driving a trench – just work, work, work. They said, “You’ve actually shown that you can sustain a much larger mission – you’ve outgrown this home.” We sat down with the architects and we gave them our dream, what we’ve learned worked and what didn’t work in our two other locations. We drew it all out and it was a $2 million dollar project, so at least I knew where to start. I met and talked with every subcontractor and they actually came forward with what they could provide, what they could donate. It was humbling. I almost presented it to them that they had been chosen to be a part of this mission, whether they were going to bring their craftsmanship or whether they were able to donate, and then it just came together. It was really amazing to go through that whole process and not crack.
NJMOM: How do you mange it all without cracking?
Michele: I almost cracked at the very, very end when the new home was all done, and we literally had women coming down from New York City on the train; they were going to be here at five o’clock, and we couldn’t get a Certificate of Occupancy (C of O). I went down to the township office and said, “You have everything. We’ve passed every permit, we’ve jumped through every hoop, and you have all the paperwork.” She said, “Yes, I do, but I’m not going to give you a C of O because I have to type up the paperwork because it’s 4:30 and we’re leaving.” I said, “I can’t leave here until you give it to me.” So I text Clare (Office Manager) and Maria, who were at the office, and said to come down to the township because we are strength in numbers. The office was closed, but they found a way in, and I said, “I have more, I can bring more. We’ll just wait.” So at a quarter to five she turned back on her light and started typing away, and when she hands it to us, I just have silent tears streaming down my face. She said, “Please, don’t cry,” and I said, “These are tears of joy, not tears of sadness, and it’s been building so it needs to come out. I’m cleansing!” So we got in the car while the women were all getting out of their taxi, and the woman who gave us the C of O comes in, and I wondered what she was doing here. She said, “I just had to see what I’m a part of.” It was her way of saying, “I’m with you.”
NJMOM: What do you offer your guests and how is it different than other professionals in your field?
Michele: We start with oncology massage, which is different than deep tissue massage. Our massage therapists are all certified in oncology massage, and they have a substantial intake form that tells them exactly where the cancer sites were, where there was surgery, where there’s scar tissue, and they educate the guests. For the first time, they really help them feel, maybe even just listen to their own breath. Any time you get a massage it quiets you, so we try to get guests to have that first service within the first couple of hours they’re here, and it really relaxes them and most often, if they have a wig, that’s when the wig comes off and it stays off while they’re here, which is a beautiful thing to see because you know that they’re trusting you. It’s gorgeous to see that, actually, it’s like we’re friends and sisters.
There are a lot of women who don’t want to be touched or can’t be touched for whatever reason, so reiki is another way to relax, and the practitioners guide them through without really touching. And then we have reflexology, which is working on the feet and all of those pressure points. We have hypnotherapy, and I always smile when I think of our hypnotherapist because she uses a karaoke machine! And I go through every session to make sure it’s in alignment with our mission. I had my daughter hypnotized too, because she’s a competitive gymnast and said she felt so tight, so I thought this would be good relaxation for her. It was good for her to go through and see what we do here. We also have expressive writing; we give the guests a journal and they go sit in this writing session for about an hour, and they really start to unload a lot.
Then the counseling comes in. We partnered up with Monmouth University’s graduate counseling program; a few of their graduate students who are in their last semester and just need clinical hours will come here, if it’s a fit, and they’ll be in house six to seven hours a day. We have a guest questionnaire that the guests fill out before they come in, and it has a whole list of services we provide and they can check off as many as they would like, and 99 percent of the time, the women weren’t checking counseling off. And I got it, I was thinking that I wouldn’t want people to think that I was vulnerable or that I needed counseling, or maybe they were going to judge me, or I want to appear that I’m healthy and on my way back. So we have the counselors here and they just sit around with a signup sheet and we say, “We have a counselor here in house today from 9:00 to 5:00. If you’d like to have a session, sign your name.” Everyone signs their name and schedules their session. So they go up to the counseling room and have their sessions.
Then on the last day, by design, we have nutritional education because they’re open to it by that point. They’ve opened their minds and their hearts for the three days and the third day is when we say, “What we’ve been feeding you is organic food, it’s vegan, it’s all in alignment with what we’re finding through all the studies are helping the body go into a healing mode, alkaline diet. Now we’re just going to spell it out for you and give you some recipes and something you can take home with you.” And they’re usually open to it. It’s fascinating to watch some women come, like we had a guest who came in with her bags of diet soda and her own cereal, and she said, “No, I’m not going to eat your food, I’m going to do my own thing,” on day one. By day two, she didn’t bring the cereal out and the soda remained in the refrigerator; we ended up dumping it out. It’s fascinating to watch how they leave it behind, and we just toss it, it’s an unspoken thing.
NJMOM: How do the guests find Mary’s Place by the Sea?
Michele: That’s been amazing because every time a guest will come here and they’ll say, “I didn’t know you existed until…” Well, we hand out brochures to each guest and ask if they mind passing them around to the oncologist, doctors appointments, radiologist, and the do for us, so they’re the word of mouth. This is the fun part – they go back to tell their support groups and the next day we’ll see all these guest questionnaires from the same area, or they’ll say they want to come as a group and they all come together, which we think is their safety net. They can come as often as they need to while they’re in treatment, and then after treatment we try to have them come in every six months for maintenance, as the “reminder” or the “tap on the shoulder.” We’ve been able to accommodate that with the larger home. When we did open the doors, we were full every day from June 1st until Christmas.
NJMOM: What is your favorite part about running Mary’s Place by the Sea?
Michele: This place has pushed me outside my comfort zone like never before and taught me so many things, so I know it’s the journey I was supposed to take. I was forty when I started it, with three kids, and not knowing what my real purpose in life was. I’d done many jobs, I was a professor at Monmouth University in German. I worked and I loved work, but motherhood was like Groundhog Day. I love being a mother and I don’t take it for granted, but at the same time, I was like, “Something has to happen, this is so mundane!” I wasn’t a happy person because I felt like everybody else was out there living and I was just doing the same things over and over again – just running the house, and that was not fulfilling me. So, then this came along.
NJMOM: What keeps Mary’s Place by the Sea operational as a hotel?
Michele: We have 65 active volunteers right now, and they work three shifts a day when we have guests, and it’s two volunteers per shift. When we moved from 15 Broadway to here, we moved from a home to a hotel so there have been some of the growing pains, as well, figuring out how to run a hotel for women that is also a retreat with all the services. It’s getting easier, but we’ve had our bumps along the way. Last year we totaled $1.3 million in donations, so from the first year of $3,500 raised to $1.3 million, it’s just amazing to take a look back. And our donor base really is just in this surrounding area, which is amazing because we’re receiving guests from all over the country, Alaska being the furthest place. But I would say it’s this community that’s giving us its support.
NJMOM: What are your goals for the future?
Michele: For the short term, we we want to create a regular calendar where we have people come in for sessions that are booked throughout the month, and people can come in even for just a few hours. We have day guests, but I want to expand that; we really do need to expand that and bring people in for the educational and empowering part. For the education part, we could be doing more, so we’re working on that. We’re creating a cookbook with our plant-based chef who is here now; that’s something new because Maria and I previously were shopping, putting all of the food together, cleaning the rooms, and running the office. Sometimes we couldn’t get to the office for a few days because we were too busy running the house.
Then we’re going to stretch a little further. We’ve had a few people write in and say, “I found a house in North Carolina that would be perfect for Mary’s Place.” It took me one day, and then I wrote, “Yes.” What this does is it engages a community, really wakes up a community. So I do feel that this does need to have little pop-ups all over the country because cancer is not going away in the immediate future and I think that the medical community is starting to understand us and they’re starting to want to partner with us instead of looking at us as an opponent. What we’re doing is complimenting all of the western medicine with the eastern medicine and it took about five years before they would take a look at what we have. Some of the practitioners would laugh at us and ask, “What is oncology massage?” Now, it’s more mainstream and in the hospitals; they’re starting to do reiki in the hospitals, so that’s a good thing. It has potential to be throughout the country, so that’s the vision.
NJMOM: Tell us about your kids!
Michele: I’m really, really blessed to have the kids that I have because they are patient with me. They know when it’s something that I can’t possibly miss but it’s helping someone else; they got on board with it. My oldest son, Paul is 14 and he goes to Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in Lincroft, so he’s very busy; he’s on the crew team. My daughter is 12 and she’s a competitive gymnast so she’s in the gym about 30 hours a week. She’s a very hard-working, disciplined person. And then my little guy, Daniel, he’s nine and he’s just a love. He was two when this started, so he’s grown up with it and will help wherever he can. He loves just being in the office with me and sits on the computer. He’ll say, “Do I have to go to school today? Can’t I just help you?”
It’s been a great experience for them in that it’s a lesson. The first time this ever happened I was shocked – we saw a woman in the grocery store, and my daughter, who’s kind of shy, went into my purse and pulled out a brochure, went up to this woman, a stranger who was bald, and said, “I don’t know if you’re sick, but if you are, this is a good place for you to go.” The woman started to cry and said that she heard of us, and she ended up coming. It makes me happy that they’re learning to think about other people and not just themselves…and their phones!
NJMOM: Where are your favorite things to do with your family in New Jersey?
Michele: This past summer we opened up Dunes, which is this food court on the Ocean Grove boardwalk with eight different vendors. My husband is one of seven, and there are 19 grandchildren for my mother-in-law, so everyone’s always around. We were always at the beach and cooking on what we called “the lawn” on the whole block which is half Gannons; they bought these little condos for distant family and we all stay together. And then this past year we decided to open up Dunes, and I had a financial goal because my son got into CBA and I wanted to be able to earn enough money to pay off CBA for the year, because it’s expensive. So we opened that up, and the kids just got engaged, and they started to work. My daughter would cut up bananas and freeze them for the smoothies, Daniel was nine when I taught him how to make pour-over coffee and run a register, and my 14-year-old took on the role of Chief Custodian, and it was very busy. He had a staff of four, then five, and before I knew it he had seven kids who were working for him who he was scheduling and doing the payroll, which he would put in ziplock bags. So we really got closer even though we weren’t just sitting on the lawn or going to the beach, we got so close. Because I still had this job so I would ride my bike back and forth from here down to there. We got so much closer.
NJMOM: What is the best part about being a mom to you?
Michele: Sometimes I feel like I shortchange my kids a bit, and I’m a very intense person; I use words like focus and discipline but then some days they’ll just say, “Can we just relax?” They remind me that we just need to relax. But I love it when my nine-year-old will say something like, “I just need to focus!” We have a really strong faith so it’s church on Sundays and then breakfast, so those are our times to hang, chat, and talk.
I learned how to knit last year; I forced myself to learn how to knit because I read stories about how it keeps your brain sharp. When I was at gymnastics meets I didn’t just want to be on my phone. We met this amazing lady who was a 9/11 widow and breast cancer survivor so she launched this knitting business called Cozmeena where you make these shawls and they’re these beautiful pieces of work, so I asked her to teach me how to do that. The team took a picture of me one day because there was total chaos happening around us – we were moving out of 15 Broadway so we were actually sitting on boxes, just knitting! I love doing it; I’ll just say that I’m going to grab 30 minutes and do a couple rows, and I don’t even know if it’s ever going to get finished, but it’s just something that I love to do, it’s just that journey.
This interview has been edited for editorial purposes and flow.