Paying It Forward
By Tracy Walton
Paying It Forward
By Tracy Walton
Once you aim your life toward doing what you love, how do you both make a living and serve those in need who cannot afford your services? Megan Belanger, LMT, CLT, a specialist in oncology massage and manual lymph drainage who practices in Westborough Mass., created Touch of Kindness, a monetary fund available to anyone seeking oncology massage care. She hopes to inspire more therapists to find a way to pay it forward.
Tracy Walton: Tell us how you got into the massage therapy field in the first place.
Megan Belanger: I used to be in the corporate world of book publishing for 13 years. In my last position as an acquisitions editor, it was fun and glamorous negotiating contracts and signing authors. As mergers happened and I had less face time with people, I had what I called an "early midlife crisis" and found myself asking, at the end of the day, how am I making a difference in the world?
I had been getting semi-regular massage for a long time, from different therapists, in different spas. When I asked them about their jobs, they absolutely loved them, and most of them said they had come to massage after a career change. Ultimately, I joined them! I've now been in practice for five years and can say I found the answer to my midlife crisis; at the end of each day, I know I am making a difference.
TW: How did you come to specialize in oncology massage and manual lymph drainage?
MB: During my training, my naturally light touch was seen as a weakness by some of my instructors, but I knew I didn't want to do deep work. I had earlier read about oncology massage and loved the idea of giving nurturing touch. After graduation, I immediately trained in oncology massage; it provided me with the background I needed to feel secure in my work and addressed the more emotional issues around bringing my heart and soul into my practice.
I also became a Certified Lymphedema Therapist in 2012, which was another way to work with light but effective touch. From the beginning of my private practice, I have focused on serving this population, and now about 70% of my clients have cancer or a history of cancer.
TW: What is Touch of Kindness, and how did it come into being?
MB: I began to get a lot of calls in my practice from people going through cancer treatment, or from their families, who wanted the support of oncology massage but who were in hard financial straits. These folks struggle with huge medical bills and loss of income at the very time they most need support. My work is not covered by insurance and so these people were often simply unable to pay for treatment. I knew I had to support my own family and could not give work away for free to all the clients who were in need. But I absolutely hated, hated having to turn people away for financial reasons.
One night at home, I was sitting with my husband and expressing my frustration and despair over the situation and he told me about something he'd seen on The Ellen DeGeneres Show: a pizza parlor that offers a pay-it-forward option. People can come into Rosa's Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia and, in addition to buying their own pizza, they can also buy a slice for a person in need. They're given a pen and a sticky note so they can write a message and stick it to the wall. Then anyone in the community can come in, take the sticky note from the wall, present it to the cashier, and get a pre-paid piece of pizza, no questions asked. "It's a great idea," my husband said, "helping people both give and receive; is there any way you can do the same for massage?" That was the light bulb moment. Modeling the pizza shop's idea, I created the Touch of Kindness Fund as a way for people to contribute money that can be used toward a session with me by clients who have lymphedema, cancer, or a history of cancer. I was surprised at how easy it was to set up.
TW: How did you get the word out to clients?
MB: To let people know about the fund, I created a video about it. I started a Facebook page for Touch of Kindness (https://www.facebook.com/search/676904875748080/local_search?surface=tyah) and posted the video there and on my website, www.meganbelanger.com/kindness/. I made flyers and placed them on the reception desk at my office and gave them out like candy. I don't take gratuities, so I suggest to clients who might want to give me a tip that they can contribute toward Touch of Kindness instead.
Soon after I started the fund, a client who knew where I got the idea from said, "Why don't you put sticky notes on the wall of your office, like the pizza place does?" This turned out to be the best idea ever! It gives everyone who comes in a visual cue about what's in the fund, and most importantly it gives people something to pull off the wall and hand to me, no questions asked, when they want to use the fund. Having the actual sticky notes on the wall, with various amounts paid into the fund, has made a big difference.
TW: Have there been any changes in how the fund is used since its beginning?
MB: One interesting problem has been that I was getting donations to the fund but not very many people were taking money out. Existing clients don't seem to want to use the fund, so it's mostly new clients who use it. I get a lot of new clients through Google, and when they visit my webpage, they see Touch of Kindness on every page, with the amount currently available in the fund on display. In fact, some new full-pay clients have told me they chose my practice because they saw Touch of Kindness on my website, so it has been an unexpected marketing tool in that way.
I'm currently doing outreach to social workers, nurse practitioners, and other professionals who help people with a cancer diagnosis navigate the system. They're the ones who can tell potential clients that both massage and the Touch of Kindness fund are available to them.
TW: How are you getting the message out to other MTs who might want to start a similar fund?
MB: The Board of the Society for Oncology Massage invited me to present a poster about Touch of Kindness at their 2016 summit in Minneapolis. So, I went to the summit with my splashy pink and purple poster describing how Touch of Kindness came to be and how others could create something similar in their practices. The response was great, and I've found out through emails and calls that other therapists are doing this, and more and more people are getting massage because of it.
TW: Can you share any of the financial implications of setting up Touch of Kindness?
MB: I got advice from my accountant on all aspects of it. I set up a separate bank account for Touch of Kindness and a PayPal account that people can use to make donations. I was advised that I did not need to create a non-profit, 501(c)3 corporation because we are not dealing with a large amount of money, and again, I'm copying off of the pizza shop's model. For some months now, we've maintained around $650 to $750 in the fund.
My accountant told me to designate the donated money as gift certificate income. I'm monitoring the patterns, when people donate and when people use the fund, and subsequently thinking of ways to adjust my marketing to help keep the incoming and outgoing funds even.
TW: Any other suggestions to help others pay it forward in their own practices?
MB: I am no expert, as Touch of Kindness is a new and experimental venture, and what I hope to do is encourage conversation. Let's create a community and have a conversation about how others are doing this, about what works and what doesn't. It's all about getting more massage to more people in need.