In Ocean Grove, a Comforting Respite for Women Battling Cancer

Mary's Place by the Sea, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this June, has served close to 10,000 women from all over the country.

Guests, staff and volunteers share stories over a meal at Mary’s Place by the Sea in Ocean Grove. Photo by Bugsmom Photography

Tracey Kurtz was on a mission. The day in 2017 when she first walked through the doors of Mary’s Place by the Sea in Ocean Grove, Kurtz had just been diagnosed with cancer. At Mary’s Place, a respite home for women being treated for cancer, the West Belmar resident found a support group to help her through her ordeal. “I had never known anyone with cancer, and I was desperate to talk to someone like me,” she recalls. Kurtz, now in remission, still goes back to visit, more than one year after completing her treatments.

June 19 will mark the 10th anniversary of Mary’s Place. Cofounders Michele Gannon and Maria McKeon, who now serve as the paid president and vice president, respectively, opened Mary’s Place with two rented bedrooms in an Ocean Grove B&B. Two years later, they moved to a house in town with four beds; three years ago, they relocated to a 10-bedroom house built for the organization on Main Avenue.

To date, Mary’s Place has served close to 10,000 women from all over the country. “We have a paid staff of seven, over 120 volunteers, and a nine-member board,” Gannon says.

“I was desperate to talk to someone like me.” —Tracey Kurtz

Guests can come for the day (Tuesday-Saturday) or settle in for a one- or two-night stay. Reservations are required for all visits (go to marysplacebythesea.org). Activities include Reiki, yoga, oncology massages, individual and group counseling with trained therapists, guided meditation, nutrition education, expressive writing and jewelry making.

All Mary’s Place services, including meals, are complimentary. “Our budget is $600,000 a year. We raise about $200,000 with our walk-a-thon,” says Gannon. “We also apply for grants, but we couldn’t do this without the extra money we get from the people who throw fundraisers for us,” Gannon says, noting that their combined fundraising efforts generate $1.2 million. Funding beyond the annual budget is reserved for future expansion.

Marilee Celestino, 61, a former cancer patient, volunteers at least two Saturdays a month. She’s also there to support guests who need to talk to someone who has shared their journey. “I spend a lot of time talking to the guests, but more importantly, listening,” she says.

Kurtz, now 53, says that her cancer journey and Mary’s Place gave her a new perspective on cancer and on life. “I see what I’m made of now and how strong I am,” she says. “I know things I didn’t know before. I can ask for what I need, and I love myself.”

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