When The Wellness Community holds The Red Carpet Event on Fri., March 22, the Hope Award honoree will be Nita Francis. Francis moved to the Valley in 1998 with her husband, Phil, then CEO of PetSmart (now retired), their four children – Sarah, Laura, Robert and Catie – and a dog named Bit O’Honey.
In her words “a farm kid,” Nita grew up outside the city of Joliet, southwest of Chicago. She’s known her husband, who also grew up on a farm, since elementary school. Both participated in 4-H, and his mother was her 4-H leader.
At heart, Nita is a nurturer, Her first degree from the University of Illinois was in home economics. After she and Phil married, she knew she wanted to teach nutrition to pregnant women and new mothers, and returned to school to earn her second undergraduate degree in nursing.
Nita and Phil Francis with their two unmarried children, Robert and Catie. Not pictured: daughers Sarah Walsh and Laura Jacobs
She is also a business professional, with an MBA in health-care management. When she arrived in the Valley, she worked for the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Phoenix campus, in a development role. The challenge, she laughs, was raising funds for UA in an ASU town. Later, after a couple of other projects that included a funding cycle with Ronald McDonald Charities, she worked in a similar capacity for Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Nita is drawn to organizations that help people live better lives. She serves on the boards of Arizona State University Foundation and the University of Illinois (her alma mater) Foundation, and also on the boards of the Valley of the Sun United Way, Maricopa Integrated Health Foundation and Barrow Neurological Foundation Women’s Board.
She has recently begun her third term on the board of The Wellness Community in Phoenix. The Wellness Community, established in Phoenix 14 years ago – shortly after the Francis family arrived in the Valley – is an affiliate of the international Cancer Support Community. Located at 360 E. Palm Lane in Phoenix, it provides free educational and emotional support for people with cancer and their loved ones. Its programs are considered “the other half” of cancer care.
Having run the women’s division of a Boston hospital and developing its women’s programs, which included a cancer-support system, she knows firsthand that such programs work. Research, she says, shows remarkable evidence that individuals who participate in these programs have improved quality of life and prospects of longer-term survival. “If a drug could do that, everyone would fight over it,” she says.
As a health professional, Francis is impressed with the quality of the staff who work at The Wellness Community. Each one, she notes, is licensed in his or her own area of expertise. She also appreciates that The Wellness Community works with all of the area cancer hospitals. Through affiliate sites, such as the one at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church and the one at John C. Lincoln Breast Center, its work reaches people throughout the Valley.
The organization’s teen program is the only one in Arizona and includes art and music therapy as well as topical educational programs. The program, she says, is more than a support group. The young people also take a trip to Disneyland. For the teens, the trip to Disneyland is “really a trip to Disneyland,” Francis says. “Teens relate in this group because everyone else has a history around cancer. For the parents, who accompany their children, it’s a time to bond with other parents dealing with similar health issues for their children.
The March 22 Red Carpet Event at Saks Fifth Avenue is the first of three fundraising events The Wellness Community will host in 2013. Its tagline is “Your Journey Starts Here.” The second and third events will be held at The Wellness Community. The Hope Starts Here Breakfast is on May 9 and Porch Party will be Nov. 8.
“My heart and my nursing background make me very drawn to The Wellness Community and its model. They are delivering an essential piece of wellness or health care to people with cancer in a very cost effective way.“
At top, Nita and Phil Francis at the 2012 Barrow Grand Ball, which Nita co-chaired with Nancy Gaintner
Text by Cindy Miller