Caring For Those With Cancer

HUGS Charities helps people take care of basic needs so they can focus on healing.

Dr. David Willis, Lisa McGuire, Amy Roberts, Al Lugo, Leigh Blair and Jessie Driggers. Photo by Bruce Ackerman, at the VFW Veteran’s Village.

With cancer, the little things matter just as much as the big things. That’s the philosophy of HUGS (Heartfelt Unconditional Giving) Charities, which was formed in 2009 to help Marion County residents who are actively undergoing cancer treatment and are experiencing a financial hardship.

Along with Manal Fakhoury, Michael Koontz founded the nonprofit after his nephew died of cancer. Koontz said he felt there were not many organizations in Ocala spreading awareness about cancer, so he created HUGS Charities to fill in the gap.

The goal of HUGS is to provide immediate temporary relief while helping find long-term financial solutions through collaborative efforts with The Cancer Alliance of Marion County.

Funding for HUGS comes primarily through an annual fundraiser, which recognizes a cancer survivor or someone who died from the disease, and individual donations.

The organization offers grants for a selected applicant’s greatest need, such as paying the rent, keeping up with the utilities or filling up the gas tank so they can get to cancer treatments. The theory is that having the basics covered allows patients and families to focus on cancer treatments and healing.

An applicant must provide verification from a treatment center that they are under care for a cancer diagnosis or provide a copy of a bill for which they are requesting help. Funds are paid to the agency, such as a utility company, landlord or mortgage company. Help for food and gas is given in the form of gift cards.

“It’s crazy how little it takes to be of great benefit to some people,” Koontz says. “That niche is sort of where HUGS falls—the smaller amounts of money that really are vital but harder to come by. One of the nurses we honored at one of the events said they had a woman who missed her treatment because it was raining and she didn’t have windshield wipers. So, you know, little things like windshield wipers would be so beneficial to people like that.” 

The Cancer Alliance of Marion County members accept a proclamation from Marion County. Courtesy of The Cancer Alliance of Marion County.

The nonprofit is volunteer-driven. Koontz is one of about 20 board members who devote their time to the charity.

Amy Roberts is chair of The Cancer Alliance of Marion County. The alliance leadership committee consists of representatives from local agencies such as the American Cancer Society, Robert Boissoneault Oncology Institute, HCA Florida Ocala Hospital, AdventHealth Ocala, Tobacco Free Florida Partnership, Hospice of Marion County, Sabal Direct Primary Care, Heart of Florida and We Care, Marion County Medical Society, Langley Health, Department of Health, Crippen and Company, and the Rural Women’s Health Project.

One recent example of an alliance outreach took place August 24th, when several team members gave an educational presentation about lung cancer screening to residents of the VFW Veteran’s Village in Fort McCoy.

“Basically, the cancer alliance is comprised of any agency healthcare system nonprofit that feels they want to help or has some impact in helping cancer patients,” Roberts explains. “The primary function of all the funds raised is to help the Patient Assistance Program.”

Next year’s HUGS fundraiser is set for February 23rd at Bank Street Bar & Grill in downtown Ocala. OS

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