By: Diana Coulter – Mullins, South Carolina
Most days, Janice Lehman wears a ball cap while she hands out hugs and fields hundreds of questions as manager of an American Red Cross shelter in South Carolina. But her cap is not a fashion statement.
“It’s just that my hair is finally growing back after three years of chemo and radiation, and I’m not quite used to it!” Lehman says with a quick smile, before dashing off again – this time to check on lunch for 90 people still at the Mullins shelter since Hurricane Matthew destroyed their homes in early October.
“I’m in remission from breast cancer,” Lehman explains between tasks, “and it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month right now, so I’m challenging anyone battling cancer to join the Red Cross. They will be amazed at how this work will fill their lives and keep them going!”
Since Lehman was diagnosed three years ago, she has endured 18 rounds of chemotherapy, and 36 of radiation. But it is “the joy in people’s faces that I see while working with Red Cross that really invigorates me and gives me extra strength,” said Janice.
“Thank goodness for Red Cross because in some ways it has really kept me going. Had it not been for this sense of purpose, I could easily have laid down and wallowed in self-pity.”
Certainly, Lehman has not slowed down. Although she is still taking oral chemotherapy drugs, the mother of two sons has volunteered in the last two months to manage Red Cross shelters during four disaster responses in Texas, Louisiana and South Carolina.
“My husband can cook and my children are grown, so I don’t worry too much,” she said with a laugh, “plus I can drive home (in South Carolina) most nights.”
Occasionally, Lehman admits that she still experiences pain. “It can get pretty bad at times, but I just try to stay distracted and focus on clients’ needs and I don’t feel any pain at all. Actually, I always say that the people I help bless me more than I ever bless them. They are the highlight of my days with Red Cross.”
As a shelter manager, Lehman said she probably puts “100 miles on my feet every day.” She likes to be “hands-on” while she leads others and never asks people to do tasks that she would not tackle herself.
“I wear many hats. I am not above cleaning toilets, helping in the kitchen, or being a patient advocate.” Recently, she ensured that a chronically ill senior at the shelter was taken to hospital for a check up, and receives a referral for home bathing and health services.
Lehman also helps organize shelter activities, like movies, games or Halloween events. “I want this place to feel like a family. I run it like I wouldn’t mind staying here myself.”
Gary Robinson, a Red Cross community partnerships volunteer who works with Lehman, said: “She is a champion! This is someone who is out serving others as a cancer survivor, and she finds joy in spite of everything.”
Claiming another hug from Lehman at the shelter, client Michael Tart simply said: “She is great.”