When Penny George was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, she said it was “as much a spiritual assault as it was a physical one.”

George, a retired psychologist and wife of former Medtronic CEO Bill George, received top-notch medical care to fight the cancer. But she also pursued other treatments such as meditation, acupuncture, yoga, massage and health coaching from a friend.

“I had to be responsible for myself. It was more than the chemo and surgery that needed to be part of my healing path,” George said.

Inspired by that experience, Penny and Bill George and the George Family Foundation are giving $2.5 million to create the George Wellbeing Center at the Greater Twin Cities YMCA’s new downtown Minneapolis location, the first of its kind at any Y in the country.

The George Center will offer evidence-based, integrative health practices — addressing the wide range of issues that can affect health, not just physical — that are shown to reduce stress, promote healing and improve health outcomes.

The George Family Foundation has also funded the Penny George Institute at Allina Health, the largest integrative medicine program within a health care system in the country.

Penny George, who co-founded the foundation with her husband, said that affordable and community-based programming outside a medical setting is the next frontier in health care.

“Our goal is to create a healthier America,” she said. “Self-care is the true primary care. People are the central agents of their own health and well-being, but they need knowledge and access to tools.”

The YMCA, with its deep community ties and long-term commitment to mind, body and spirit, is a natural partner, she said. The Y also ensures that services are available to people of all economic means and backgrounds.

Assessing overall health

The new 3,500-square-foot center will be open to Y members and nonmembers and occupy the second floor of the new YMCA at Gaviidae Common on Nicollet Mall and 6th Street, slated to open later this month. It will include four treatment rooms offering health coaching, nutrition guidance, acupuncture, massage, hydromassage, aromatherapy, mediation and yoga. It will also offer well-being assessments that go beyond the scale or the treadmill, said Cassie Rood, the Y’s vice president of healthy living.

The assessments will focus on a person’s overall social, emotional and physical health, along with the often personal reasons that he or she wants to maintain or improve their health. Those reasons may include enriching their family life, excelling in their career, doing more traveling or expanding their social circle.

Glen Gunderson, president and CEO of the Y, said the George Center reflects society’s growing realization that the health care system is really a sick care system and that individuals want more tools to maintain physical and emotional health than simply those that treat it once they fall ill.

Americans “spend more per capita [on health] than any place on the globe and 50 to 70 percent of those costs are lifestyle-related. We wait for disease to manifest and we treat it,” Gunderson said. But the Y and the George Family Foundation, he said, are “intent on getting upstream and providing a holistic approach.”

The George Center will provide holistic care options for children, teens and families — teaching youngsters coping skills to deal with anxiety, stress and depression.

Taking care of body, mind

Gayle Ober, president of the George Family Foundation, said the center reflects a new understanding of how people today interact with health care.

“Health care is so expensive. People are opting not to go to the doctor for every little thing. People are opting to do a whole lot more self-care,” she said.

Penny and Bill George refocused the work of the George Family Foundation, created in 1994, to include funding integrative health, spirituality and mindfulness after Penny George’s cancer.

The foundation, with about $63 million in assets, awards about $3.8 million in grants to nearly 80 organizations each year.

Penny George said her work in holistic wellness is rooted in her life story. She grew up in rural Maryland, the daughter of a doctor who sometimes visited his patients’ homes on horseback. Both her grandfathers were ministers, and she became a psychologist while her husband led one of Minnesota’s best-known medical device makers.

Penny George said she anticipated that doctors will refer patients to the Y’s new center. She also hopes the George Center’s programs will spread to Ys across Minnesota and the country.

“There has been a growing shift in consciousness that was unimaginable 40 years ago,” she said.