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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sanctuary for all

Bobbie Domonouski, the director of the Foundation for Deaconess and Valley Heath Care, sits in the new Gunning-Helm Family Chapel. The foundation is responsible for the new chapel through a donation from Diane and Ted Gunning. 
 (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman-Review)

People reeling from the strain of watching loved ones battle illness and disease now have a place of respite at Valley Hospital and Medical Center. A $30,000 donation from longtime Valley residents Diane and Ted Gunning transformed a former radiology waiting room into The Gunning-Helm Family Chapel last month.

“I love the idea of sanctuary. Sometimes when those incredible moments of grief happen, there’s nothing in your past that prepares you,” said longtime chaplain Noni Comerford, who works at Valley Hospital and at Deaconess Medical Center.

The chapel, around the corner from the hospital cafeteria, provides a cozy interdenominational setting where people of various beliefs can relax to the soothing sound of water trickling down a pebbled wall fountain.

When the hospital was originally built in 1963, it had a chapel, Comerford said. However, about 20 years ago, space became tight and the little-used room was converted to other uses.

Comerford and other chaplains requested that a chapel be re-established over the past seven or eight years. However, with hospital budgets tight and with no outside funding available to renovate and furnish a room, the administration was unwilling to commit to the project.

That changed when Diane Gunning, a Foundation for Deaconess and Valley Heath Care board member, heard about the need for a chapel.

The Gunnings, former owners of Quality Inn Valley Suites, have a unique empathy for people dealing with stress caused by illness and loss because Diane’s side of the family struggles with heart problems.

The Gunning-Helm Family Chapel was donated in honor of her father, Ben Helm, and their children and grandchildren. Gunning hopes it lends families moments of peace in tumultuous times.

While the chapel will display a cross, the sign of Christianity, in one corner, it will have a larger display made of tiles representing the world’s five major religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. Organizers are also looking for a tile that reflects Native American spiritualism.

“It’s really for all different religious groups. We wanted it to be for everyone,” Gunning said.

In addition to soft, recessed lighting, the chapel has a stereo system and is furnished with silk plants and framed prints of flowers in muted colors. An informational caddy on the wall has brochures about handling grief, anger and other emotions related to illness and loss.

Several groupings of chairs and settees are arranged in semicircular fashion, so more than one group or family can visit simultaneously, yet still have a measure of privacy.

The chapel offers an alternative to small consulting rooms, which offer privacy, but feel stark and to waiting areas, where televisions buzz and people frequently come and go.

Within the warm environment of the chapel, people can meditate, pray and discuss tough decisions without feeling self-conscious, Comerford explained.

“If someone were in tears, this would be a much better place to give them some privacy.”

Last week, the chaplain came across a couple sitting quietly on a settee and staring at the lighted fountain. She couldn’t tell what burden they bore, only that they looked weary. “They were saying, ‘This has just been a sanctuary for us.’.”

During a workday, the chaplain connects with patients whose lives hang in the balance. In addition to comforting people, she calls relatives to give updates and connects grieving people with sources of comfort, including friends.

“Every family wants something different,” Comerford explained. “I just think people don’t want to be left out of the loop.”

She believes her role is to support others in their spiritual beliefs, offering them comfort and, if requested, prayers. It’s a role the chapel will support.

“We’re here for church people, for nonchurch people, for people who are angry with God and for people who find great strength in their faith.”