A place to turn
Opening the doors to the new Cara Cancer Support Centre at Williamsons Place for the first time this week, it was her vision of setting up a special place in Dundalk dedicated to those who need support while battling the illness.
'A year ago we had no building, no charity status and no money in the bank, a lot has happened in that time,' said Claire.
A cancer survivor, she looked back at her own experience and that of other local people who faced the challenges of diagnosis and treatment.
Realising there was 'a major gap' in the supports available, she says she became determined to create a support centre close to home.
'I remember that I used to drive people up from Dundalk if they were going for treatment in Dublin. Once they would come out of the hospital, they often had so many questions, mostly asking 'What now'.
It was then that I thought there needs to be somewhere in Dundalk where they can go and get that support, get their questions answered, and be able to talk to other people who are maybe going though exactly what they are.'
Reaching out to friends, some of whom were cancer survivors, some not, she set a goal to create a centre that from the outset she called 'Cara'.
'It's a word that literally means friendship. And that is what I envisaged for this place,' said Claire as she looks around at the oasis of peace and tranquillity the group have created in just one year.
'There was so much to do, don't get me wrong! We have all dedicated so much time and energy to creating this, but when myself and Anna (Brennan) actually stopped and looked at it this week, we couldn't believe just how beautiful it actually is.'
The goal, she adds, all along, has been to provide a welcoming, homely environment for people to meet, and, if they wish, to avail of counselling, alternative therapies, yoga and meditation, or arts and crafts classes.
Practical services such as a wig fitting expert and a specialist in bra fitting for prosthesis will also come on stream.
All aimed at healing and renewing, the treatments and classes are, Claire adds, a way to relax and escape for a time from the challenges of coping with cancer.
'But it isn't all about coming here to take part in activities. The main focus of this centre is to be a place where people feel comfortable to come in for a cup of tea or coffee, and just relax in quiet if they need, or talk to others if they feel that would help.'
The physical fight against cancer is often heightened by the mental challenges that accompany a diagnosis, admits Claire.
'There is a lot going on in your mind too, you are thinking about your mortality, and the chance that you might not survive this.'
'But there have been so many positive developments in cancer treatments over the last few years. Survival rates have increased so much. People should be aware that being diagnosed with cancer doesn't mean you are going to die.'
She adds that cancer 'does not discriminate between men and women,' but often men won't verbalise how they feel in the same way women do.'
'So we really want to welcome men to the centre, who need some time out from their illness, or that of someone they love.
Men are more likely to bottle things up, and not talk about how it is affecting them. I hope they will feel comfortable here to talk to someone if they want to.'
The secret behind the Cara centre has been the voluntary efforts, says Claire, with a huge fundraising effort in the months after it was announced. 'We actually couldn't believe just how much people got behind it. There were so many events held over the last year. It even came down to people donating their birthday money to us!' The largest donation so far had been that of the building which Cara now calls home.
Originally the Dundalk office of Sinn Fein, the party moved their headquarters to Crowe Street, and generously handed their Williamsons Place building to the team behind Cara.
'It was an extraordinary donation, for which we are very grateful,' said Claire and Anna.
Once the building was secured, the job of transforming it into a haven of peace and tranquillity began.
'We put out an appeal for any tradesmen, painters, plumbers, and joiners to help us get the centre ready,' added Claire.
'The response to the appeal was just unbelievable. We had men coming in after they had worked all day, volunteering at weekends, whenever they could find the time, it was amazing to be honest.'
Dundalk suppliers also got on board, providing materials at knock down prices, to enable the team to bring their dream to fruition.
'This centre has only been possible with the generosity of so many people, and we want to sincerely thank everyone who helped in any way.'
For now, Claire and team will work on ensuring the centre is open to the public on Friday May 23rd.
'Only after the first person comes through the door will it become the centre we have been working to achieve,' added Anna.
'We really want it to be used by everyone who needs it.
'But if 10 people a year come in to us, it will have been a success.'