Cancer led to her calling: She offers families a safe haven

When Amanda Milner’s marriage broke up and she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma she discovered a strength she didn’t know she had.

From a hospital bed at IU Health Simon Cancer Center a Florida resident talks about his care – he mentions his doctors, he mentions his nurses, he mentions the CompleteLife music therapist . . . and then he mentions someone named “Amanda.”

The patient – a realtor in Florida – knew he and his wife were going to be staying in Indiana for several weeks while he received treatment for a germ cell tumor. So he did his homework and began searching online for housing. That’s when he landed on the name “Amanda” and a place called “Fair Haven.” It became a temporary home while they were in Indiana.

“She came to see us when we got here and even brought us a goodie bag,” said Steve Rennick. He was not the first resident of Fair Haven but Amanda Milner, the director, made him feel like the first. She does that with all of her guests.

With the help of an IU Health Values Grant, Milner, who worked in the cellular therapy lab, launched Fair Haven in 2007. The grant, available to IU Health employees, was enough for her to rent three apartments for 18 months. The idea was to provide free lodging to out-of-town patients and their families.

She started with oncology patients because that is where she worked and that is what she knew. In 2001 – just a few weeks after her marriage dissolved and she found herself a single mother with two toddlers – Milner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was under the care of oncologist Dr. Larry Cripe.

She was no stranger to cancer. At the age of five her mom’s only sister died of cancer. The tragedy left its mark on Milner’s heart. She knew then she would work toward bettering the lives of those fighting cancer. She didn’t know she would have her own battle but that personal experience helped heighten her sensitivity. She learned about challenges through the eyes of a patient. Six months after her diagnosis she was in remission.

But that mark on her heart from the awful disease was still there. It would never leave.

“In the midst of it all I saw God was there for me in so many ways,” said Milner. “My family, my friends and my church all supported me during that time and did many kind things for me.”

Her job in the bone marrow transplant program connected her with patients from all over the country and even throughout the world who were coming to IU Health seeking treatment for cancer. Like the patient from Florida, they needed a place to call home while they were here.

Milner’s own mother had immigrated from Egypt so she knew from her stories what it was like to try to find that safe haven – to feel comfortable in an unfamiliar community.

“Our mission became sharing the love of God through gracious hospitality and compassionate support. I’d absolutely say those were my mom’s highest values when she first met people,” said Milner. They named the nonprofit organization Fair Haven after the Mediterranean Island of Fair Havens, which gave refuge to a ship during a terrible storm.

Since 2008, Fair Haven has served more than 1,000 patients providing more than 25,000 nights of lodging. Milner devotes about 50 hours a week to Fair Haven. What started as three furnished apartments has grown to eight and is under the guidance of a five-person board of directors and three part-time staff members. Several churches and volunteers also assist in providing families with meals, transportation and other support services.

Fair Haven has become an essential ancillary to out-of-town patients. So essential that it is growing to meet the demand.

“Thousands of patients travel to Indianapolis each year for the expertise and specialized care that IU Health offers.  There is a tremendous need for lodging and support for these families who are facing overwhelming challenges as they battle a serious illness while far from home,” said Milner.  “Growth is crucially needed and that’s why our board developed a two-phase plan for expansion.  It’s exciting because we’ve raised almost half of our $2.25M campaign to open a new facility that will allow Fair Haven to provide a home-away-from-home for more than 400 families annually.  It will be comparable to charitable lodging facilities at academic health centers across the country.” 

Milner says with support of the community, the plan is to have the new facility up and running later this year or early next year.  The remodel includes plans for 12 hotel-style rooms, a dining room where volunteers can serve meals to guests, a chapel, and drop-in services where non-residents can get away from the hospital to take a shower, wash their clothes, and get a meal.

And at the center of the remodel will be a stained glass window.

“It symbolizes a sacred window in people’s lives,” said Milner. “Together, we shine a light of hope for them in their darkest time.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email