In 2011, Marianna Scimeca received a difficult diagnosis.
She learned she had multiple myeloma, or blood plasma cancer. The intense treatment ahead would include chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.
At 58, Scimeca immediately retired from the job she loved as a foreign language teacher at East Grand Rapids Middle School.
She wasn’t ready to retire, but she needed to focus on the fight for her life.
When her treatment wrapped up, she wondered what would come next in her life. She had devoted 30 years to teaching and suddenly felt a bit aimless.
“I prayed a lot for direction,” Scimeca said.
One answer to her prayers came in the form of volunteering. She wanted to help other cancer patients and give back to the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, where doctors had saved her life.
“I feel blessed to have the energy to do it, because I didn’t know if I ever would,” she said. “I get back much more than I give.”
On Tuesdays, Scimeca spends two hours volunteering for the Spectrum Health Expressive Arts Program at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
Scimeca and others transform an otherwise empty hallway into an art studio complete with easels, canvases, brushes and paints. She is joined by other volunteers and RaNae Couture, Spectrum Health art therapy coordinator.
The program is open to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.
On a recent Tuesday, nearly 20 people filled the space. Scimeca wandered, offering art supplies, smiles and encouraging words.
“I love this program. It’s rewarding to watch so many people come in and say they’re having a really bad week and they’re so thankful this is here,” she said. “It’s relaxing and healing. It’s just a really nice escape.”
Scimeca is quick to point out that she’s not a painter. But she is a cancer survivor who understands the pain and fear many of the program’s participants are experiencing.
“I give hope and try to make people smile,” she said. “Some people want to paint, but they really want to talk.”
Just a week earlier, Scimeca remembers Alice den Hollander coming to the group after receiving some unexpected bad test results.
“I was rattled and stressed out,” den Hollander said. “I wanted to come here. I wanted to paint something hopeful and peaceful.”
Those are the moments that keep Scimeca coming back.
“As you can see, there’s much more going on than just putting color on canvas,” she said. “(Alice) knew there was a safe healing space that she could just create without something negative. … The energy is very positive and a lot of people are going through things that aren’t very positive.”
One week, when those in attendance weren’t feeling very creative, Scimeca suggested everyone do a group painting.
“That’s the teacher in me,” she said. “By the end of it, we had something very abstract.”
In addition to Tuesdays, she also spends Thursday mornings volunteering at the Expressive Arts Program for neurological rehabilitation patients at the Spectrum Health Neuro Residential Care campus on Kalamazoo Avenue.
In fact, a newspaper article about an exhibit featuring artwork from that program is how she learned about Expressive Arts. The program for cancer patients had not yet been created.
“I attended the art show and met several artists. One in particular looked at me, smiled and gave me a thumbs up,” she said. “I knew right then that I had found the perfect place.”
While Scimeca has been in remission since 2012, she continues to receive bone infusions at Lemmen-Holton. She lives in Kentwood with her husband, John, and has two adult children, Nick and Jessica.
Fluent in French, Spanish and Italian, her gift with language has also benefited the program.
She recalls one patient with whom she could speak Spanish.
“He was so happy somebody was speaking Spanish. It made him feel good,” she said. “It was just an extra blessing to do that.”
Scimeca lives by her motto: “It is what it is, but it will become what you make it.”
“That’s the positive angle that I chose from the beginning,” she said.