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Battling cancer with love

Michelle's Love honors founder's late friend, enriches lives of single mothers with cancer

When Andy McCandless watched her best friend die of cancer in 2005, she didn't know the experience would spark a new life calling.

PHOTO COURTESY MICHELLE'S LOVE - Andy McCandless, founder of Michelle's Love, with Angie Van Ortwick and her daughter in 2013. Van Ortwick is one of about 30 people who has been helped by Michelle's Love, a nonprofit organization the helps single mothers going through cancer treatment.

McCandless was living in Phoenix at the time. Her friend, Michelle Singleton, was a 32-year-old single mother with four kids, battling cancer.

Singleton died, but her name lives on in the nonprofit organization, Michelle's Love.

The organization provides financial assistance, free house cleaning and meals to single mothers with cancer.

McCandless started a nonprofit group back in Phoenix after being compelled to help other women in the same position as Singleton. When she moved to Scappoose, she started Michelle's Love to help mothers in the tri-counties and Columbia County.

“When [Singleton] died, I went to an oncology unit and I asked if they knew of a single mom there with cancer,” McCandless recalled. “Some friends and I got together and helped her. It basically just started with wanting to help one person. I didn't even know what a nonprofit was.”

Michelle's Love remains a modest endeavor with a small budget, but it has had a powerful effect.

In 2013, when Angie Van Ortwick was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was struggling to pay her mortgage and care for a 7-month-old while working in a nursing home.

In addition to chemotherapy, the St. Helens woman underwent a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy.

“When I was diagnosed, I was at Providence [Health & Services] and I was actually asking them if there was anybody out there that would help, because I was a single mom with three kids,” Van Ortwick said. “They gave me several numbers and Michelle's Love was the only one that was willing to step up and help us out.”

McCandless met with Van Ortwick, learned about her 7-month-old daughter and two teenage sons, and determined she'd be a good candidate to receive assistance.

“The next thing I know, they're here; they're doing a complete top-to-bottom house cleaning,” Van Ortwick said. “I own my house and they actually stepped up and helped me get caught up on my house payments.”

Van Ortwick has since started her own daycare business that allows her to be at home with her now 3-year-old daughter. She said life isn't perfect, but it's better, and she credits Michelle's Love with helping her through one of the most trying times in her life.

“I tried to ignore it as much as possible,” Van Ortwick said of her condition. “It was hard. It was physically exhausting. The chemo started getting to my bones. I had neuropathy.”

She described herself as a “clean freak,” but said once the treatment started, she knew she had bigger priorities than keeping her home spotless.

“They cleaned. They got me a new shower curtain, a new bedroom set. You're going through pain, emotions, all kinds of stuff. … It was kind of like, I'm this new person now — mentally, physically, emotionally — and to have this new house all spring-cleaned, it was really heartwarming. I don't know how to describe it.”

PHOTO COURTESY MICHELLE'S LOVE - Colleen Snarski washes dishes in the home of one of the mothers served by Michelle's Love. The organization utilizes volunteers like Snarski to help clean and help with other household chores of single mothers in treatment for cancer. The organization helps a handful of mothers at a time and operates with very little overhead.

McCandless runs the organization from her home without any paid staff. She doesn't spend any money on marketing or advertising, relying instead on word-of-mouth and the outreach she does on her own. Michelle's Love relies solely on donations, volunteers and biannual fundraisers, like the "Step Up Your Love" run she'll be taking part in this Sunday, Dec. 13. About 13 women plan to run a combined 130 miles on a route from the St. Johns Bridge through Portland.

By Monday afternoon, the annual run had surpassed $16,000 in pledges and donations. Three days later, the organization was just $800 shy of its $20,000 goal.

McCandless has been lucky to have the support of her husband to help her stay home and care for her two daughters, while running the nonprofit.

“I'm really proud of the fact that we haven't had any paid staff, but I know that in order for me to keep doing what I'm doing with both my girls in school, I can either punch a clock somewhere or expand Michelle's Love,” she said.

McCandless estimates she may give herself a small voucher each month, maybe $500, to allow her to remain at the helm, but she's committed to keeping Michelle's Love's mission realistic and meaningful. She prides herself on providing hands-on assistance with “daily needs,” in contrast with larger, nationally known cancer organizations that focus on outreach and awareness, spending heavily on promotional materials.

Michelle's Love is currently looking for a Columbia County mother in need of a small financial boost or a helping hand with life's daily chores.

“Cleaning houses is my all time favorite thing to do for a mom,” she noted. “I like it better than paying their bills, because I feel you can't get well if you're sitting in a dirty house.” 

She cites a recent house cleaning a few weeks ago, in which nearly 20 volunteers showed up to help clean a woman's house.

“We had three people rake her yard and put a basketball hoop together,” she said. “Someone cleaned her grill for two hours.”

McCandless is proud of the work she and the volunteers have accomplished in her late friend's honor.

“When the moms see so many strangers coming together to help them out, it's a real inspiration to them,” she said. “My inspiration is the example I'm setting for my daughters and honoring my best friend.”