Amid the bustle of Uptown Minneapolis lies a quiet sanctuary for people struggling with life-threatening illnesses.

Called Pathways, it fits an unusual health service niche in Minnesota — and the nation.

During any given month, it offers 50 “complementary therapies” in a serene setting to people more accustomed to hospitals and clinics. Swedish massage. Adaptive yoga. Drumming. Writers’ circles. And it’s all free — thanks to the more than 160 care providers who volunteer their services.

The nonprofit has counted more than 150,000 visits since it opened 25 years ago, including 10,000 last year. It marked its anniversary with research showing its services are significantly improving clients’ lives.

“The minute I walk in here I know I’m OK,” said Allison Diamond, 74, who has lung cancer. “I love the support of this place. And that everything is free is amazing: I could never afford this.”

Dr. Greg Plotnikoff of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital says he refers many patients to Pathways, which he describes as “uniquely important to the Twin Cities.”

“Often people become over medicalized,” Plotnikoff said. “Pathways is an antidote to that. It allows people to draw on inner resources to restore their health and well-being.”

 

“I don’t know of any place like Pathways in the country,” he added.

Expanding over the years

The nonprofit was started in 1989 by Penny Winton and the late Mike Winton, Twin Cities philanthropists who — in their own battles with cancer — came to embrace healing therapies that complemented their medical treatments, said Tim Thorpe, Pathways’ executive director.

Pathways opened its doors a few blocks south of Calhoun Square. As demand grew, it purchased two old houses nearby, razed them, and built a peaceful oasis with classrooms and socializing space for clients.

Walk inside today and find an inviting living room with sofas and chairs, a large fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows facing a private back yard. Steps away is a kitchen where participants grab coffee or chat at the table. The first and second floors hold therapy rooms ranging from a small space with a massage table to a large airy room for group acupuncture.

On a recent Monday morning, the day started with a laughter yoga class, one of the noisier activities at Pathways. In a circle sat a group of upbeat participants, including a woman who was blind and required a wheelchair, a younger mother with lupus and fibromyalgia, and a middle-aged man with severe multiple sclerosis.

Instructors Pete and Jan Girard explained that studies have shown that laughter and yoga lower stress hormones, strengthen the immune system and improve mood. For the next hour, the group engaged in breathing exercises and goofy role-playing that prompted hearty laughs.

The Girards would yell out a command: “You’re a French man with a cigarette and a beret — and you have an attitude.” On cue, the participants would greet each other with the appropriate attitude.

The group did Spanish dance, put imaginary whoopee cushions under their armpits and repeated reassuring words about their bodies.

“My mom and I had joked about this class: It looked ridiculous,” said participant Ilsa Bruins with a smile. “But we tried it and had fun. I feel more energy. More relaxed.”

The Minnetonka mother, who also takes adaptive yoga to ease the symptoms of lupus and fibromyalgia, said she appreciated the age range of participants at Pathways and that she could bring her mother, who is her caregiver.

Spending time with other people facing similar life difficulties has been helpful, she said, adding they’ve become “a support community.”

Healing choices

Pathways operates on the belief that everyone should have the tools to participate in their own healing, said Thorpe. Letting people choose their own classes gives them a say in their treatment, which typically is dominated by medication and medical procedures.

Because people with a health care crisis often wind up in a financial crisis, offering the services free removes that obstacle, he said. The average income of participants is about $40,000 a year.

Diamond, like other participants, starts each month by logging into Pathways’ website and reviewing the 50 or 60 therapies available. A computer program collects all participants’ preferred classes and randomly assigns the classes. This month, for example, she was able to take two types of yoga, a forgiveness class and a writers circle.

While participants have long praised such services, Thorpe wondered if there was a way to quantify their benefits. He learned that in 2011, researchers at the University of Arizona interviewed 135 participants in such treatments. Among their findings: 85 percent experienced decreased pain, 87 percent felt less anxious, 90 percent felt more energetic and 92 percent were better able to cope.

Armed with these findings, and a growing demand for services, Pathways has begun seeking new audiences.

“When you get to 10,000 visits a year, our walls start bending,” said Thorpe.

Pathways’ providers, for example, are now working with senior citizens in the Ebenezer housing program run by Fairview Health Services, he said. It has received grants from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to provide off-site retreats for women with breast cancer.

“We see what happens here every day,” said Thorpe. “Now we’d like to offer it to the wider community.”