For decades, the Carbon/Tamaqua Unit of the American Cancer Society has been housed in a century-old building at 33 W. Ridge St., Lansford.

It was a place where volunteers met, where people recently diagnosed with cancer, or their loved ones, could walk in, sit down and chat with someone about the changes wrought by the disease.

In September, the American Cancer Society closed the office; staff now work from the Frackville Regional Hub/Carbon, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties.

Although the brick-and-mortar presence of the Carbon/Tamaqua Unit was shuttered, the local organization continues to thrive, with a host of volunteers and successful fundraising events.

And soon, the door of 33 W. Ridge St. may be unlocked, and the lights turned on again: A longtime volunteer, whose name is synonymous with the ACS annual telethon, plans to buy the building to create a space for volunteers to meet and plan events.

Joe Krushinsky, a 30-year volunteer and chairman of the annual telethon, said he plans to buy the building, and open it as a meeting place for volunteers and a headquarters for event planning.

"I'm hoping that, shortly after the first of the year, people won't even notice the difference," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

A difficult decision

The ACS began talking about closing the office with Carbon/Tamaqua Unit staff and volunteers about three years ago, Krushinsky said.

"The ACS explained to volunteer leaders a few years ago this was something they might need to look at," he said. "This is something that was carefully considered over time. They kept us involved they didn't keep it a secret."

Krushinsky said that Pennsylvania, with 50-60 offices, is an anomaly in terms of the number of local ACS buildings. Ohio, for example, has six offices, and does just as good a job caring for those with cancer.

"Having a building isn't the point. It's helping people understand the disease, detecting it early, and helping people with what they need," he said. "I think the ACS has made exactly the right decision."

It was not a decision made lightly. The ACS logged traffic at the office, and found that the number of visits was declining. Mostly, Krushinsky said, it served as a "home" for volunteers. Now, the volunteers meet at St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital, Coaldale, and other local venues.

"An office is a place for staff members to sit, and it has to be somewhere," he said. "And from a donor's perspective, it's a little bit less money being used on facilities."

That's supported by ACS Regional Vice-President Jo-Anne Sessa.

"The Society felt it was important to be a good steward of donor dollars by blending resources from smaller less staffed facilities to one centrally located office with longer hours and full-service capacity. The community will see no changes in programs and services as local staff will continue to partner with community businesses, hospitals, and organizations that open their doors to host our meetings, programs, services, and events," she said.

No change in services

"The Carbon/Tamaqua Unit still does exactly what it has always done," Krushinsky said.

The services offered don't take place in an office. For example, wigs are offered by participating cosmetologists, and new patient intake interviews typically take place over the telephone. Further, ACS services come to those who need them, not the other way around.

Krushinsky offers as an example ACS representative Judy Hoppes' antismoking education programs, which are brought to area schools.

"The Carbon/Tamaqua unit continues to run as it has in the past, as all our units do. The American Cancer Society has never been about 'bricks and mortar'. We are a community driven and led organization. We have a very impactful Volunteer Leadership Council who provide strong volunteer support as they have throughout the years. Our programs and services are in the community," Sessa said.

"In fact, we have six Look Good ... Feel Better sites in Carbon County, and two wigs banks (in Palmerton and Tamaqua). Staff spend time at school wellness councils, working with health system and treatment center employees to ensure that we have a strong collaboration to serve cancer patients. Staff can be found at health fairs and at senior gatherings to make sure that community members know about our local programs and services," she said.

Sessa pointed to studies demonstrating that just "two percent of constituents surveyed said they would prefer to reach out to the Society through a local office. Patients can access information and referrals 24/7 by calling 1-800-227-2345 to talk live to a cancer information specialist."

People can also access the ACS website, www.cancer.org, to find information about prevention, treatment, diagnosis, recovery and the array of services the organization provides.

"I'm happy to say that in two months alone, September and October, 90 constituents from Carbon/Tamaqua were provided with the assistance they sought from the ACS," Sessa said.

A sentimental journey

"But the building means something to the volunteers who have worked in it, so we're going to try to hang on to it," Krushinsky said.

Longtime volunteers Susie Bortnick and Kate Yushko were unhappy to the see the building closed.

"I think it's really sad that they moved it. Now there are a lot of people who won't be able to go there for help. (Frackville) is out of the way. Even Tamaqua would have been better," Bortnick said.

Yushko said that "people were used to going there after the telethon to make their donations or to pick up information," she said.

The local office provided a personal feel, and was convenient. That was especially important for newly-diagnosed cancer patients, Yushko said.

Krushinsky appreciates the sense of loss that longtime volunteers are experiencing.

"I love that big, old dilapidated building. I started volunteering there 30 years ago as a teenager. There are a lot of people who associate that building with the ACS," he said.

Krushinsky said he plans to open the building as a telethon headquarters, and to plan other ACS events, including Daffodil Days and Relays for Life.

The help is clearly needed.

The number of cancer cases in Carbon County rose from 331 in 1990 to 494 in 2009. In Schuylkill County, the numbers increased from 983 to 1,038 over the same period, according to the state Department of Health.

Brick-and-mortar notwithstanding, the Carbon/Tamaqua Unit thrives.

The unit was formed more than 50 years ago, according to its website. The annual telethon was created in 1980 as a Tamaqua Area High School student project, under the leadership of former teacher George Taylor.

The first telethon raised $15,000, and since then has raised millions of dollars in the fight against cancer. The telethon, featuring local talent, is produced each spring at Penn's Peak, Jim Thorpe, and broadcast on Blue Ridge Cable television Channel 13.

The ACS' Frackville Regional Hub / Carbon, Luzerne, and Schuylkill Counties, is located at 101 W. Frack St., Frackville. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and can be reached at (570) 874-1413.