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Carl Love: Temecula’s Michelle’s Place expands outreach to cancer patients, aims to raise $1.2 million

When Michelle Watson was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer in 1997, she found minimal local support services.
The Temecula resident was still frustrated with the shortage of help when she died in 2000 at just 26, her life barely started.
Watson’s dying wish to her family was for them to start a center where such assistance could be offered to people who need it in the worst way.
Her wish has more than come true with the recent huge expansion of the center named after her: Michelle’s Place .
There are plans to more than triple in size and a fundraising campaign that already has generated $720,000 toward its goal of $1.2 million by June 1 — including $250,000 in donations from the Pechanga Resort and Casino and the Pechanga Tribal Council. 
Taking it all in at the new center in a strip mall at 41669 Winchester Road recently was Michelle’s brother, Wayne.
“She would be extremely proud,” Wayne Watson said of his sister. “This is amazing.”
True. The planned upgrades are remarkable, like shifting from a well-intentioned raft to a well-appointed ship.
Michelle’s Place was started in 2001 . At the time, it was a mere 350 square feet, basically an office shared with a church. There have been three other offices since then, the last a 3,200-square-foot rented space on Jefferson Avenue that had one private room where clients could be served. When construction is finished, the new space will have a dozen such rooms.
In November, 10 employees led by Executive Director Kim Gerrish moved into the bigger quarters now owned by Michelle’s Place. The days of renting are thankfully gone.
Right now, they occupy about 2,000 square feet of space, but behind an adjoining wall is another 8,000 square feet under construction and expected to be ready by fall.
During a tour of the dark construction space — amid the dirt, torn-up concrete and building supplies – Gerrish talked about inspiration, about how the new center will allow her staff to better meet the many needs of the rapidly growing population they serve.
About 60 percent of their clients are from where you’d expect, southwest Riverside County. The rest are from northern San Diego County, the rest of Riverside County and even San Bernardino County. Michelle’s dying wish is now a regional blessing.
In a prepared statement, Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro said everybody knows someone who’s been affected by cancer.
“This expansion will provide community members in need more access to the help they require to fight this disease,” his statement said. “That’s something that Pechanga is honored to stand behind.”
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Gerrish says the donation is her agency’s largest ever and said “it brings tears to my eyes to think that Pechanga is wrapping their arms around us, saying we support you and we believe in you.”
It’s clear a lot of people believe in Michelle’s Place, a nonprofit center with an annual budget of about $850,000 that has now served more than 100,000 clients since it opened. And, instead of just breast cancer clients, the center now helps people with any form of the disease. In just the first three months of the year, it helped clients with 32 different cancers. Unfortunately, the disease takes many forms.
Gerrish was the center’s first paid employee when she was hired 15 years ago. Her efforts were recognized recently when she was named Citizen of the Year by the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Good things keep happening for Michelle’s Place, the good intentions of its creator forever inspiring.
Reach Carl Love at carllove4@yahoo.com

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