The turnout was quite impressive at the 11th Annual Tidewell Hospice Signature Luncheon in Sarasota, which helps fund the services Tidewell provides to more than 9,000 patients annually regardless of their ability to pay. One impressive attendee in particular we were delighted to chat with was the keynote speaker, an icon in Hollywood for almost 5 decades, Melissa Gilbert.
Best known for her role as Laura Ingalls Wilder on the hit show Little House on the Prairie and with an acting career spanning over 45 years, Melissa has starred in over 50 television movies and feature films. Along with working behind the camera as a director and acting on the screen and stage, she served two terms as the 23rd President of the Screen Actors Guild, two terms as Vice President on the AFL-CIO Executive Council and was Vice President of the California Labor Federation.
As a children’s hospice advocate, Melissa decided to “dedicate my life to ensuring that all chronically and terminally ill children get to live and die with gentleness, dignity and the grace that they deserve.” She served as the President of the Board of Directors of Children’s Hospice and Palliative Care Coalition (CHPCC) beginning in 2007. In 2015, CHPCC joined The Coalition for Compassionate Care of California (CCCC) to develop a united voice in public policy at the state and national level. Melissa received the Humanitarian Leadership Award in 2008 from the National Hospice Foundation in recognition for her work on behalf of children facing life-limiting conditions.
A woman with a bounty of impressive acting credits and an incredibly active personal life of civic engagement, Melissa has not only earned her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but she’s earned her walk into the light as a speaker, advocate, and leader.
Our time with Melissa was brief but full of so many morsels of wisdom and insight, we wanted to invite you into this conversation so you can get to know a bit about why “Half Pint” has filled her life with the cause of hospice care.
Suncoast Post: I understand you’re involved in many other causes outside of just your deep involvement with advocating for hospice care. Who in your life instilled in you to give back?
Melissa Gilbert: The message of my entire childhood from my mother and father was “Look how blessed, look how lucky we are, look how there are other people in the world who are nowhere near as lucky as we are – we have to do something.” We were always very socially aware and active. I clearly remember my mother hosting non-profit fundraisers in our backyard in the ‘60s. It was drilled into us, my siblings and I, from a very young age that this is something we were obligated to do and took great pleasure in doing, even as children.
SP: One thing worth noting about growing up with your role on Little House On The Prairie is that the show did a great job of highlighting both nuanced and obvious social and political issues. Is that what made it such a formative show for so many people?
MG: Michael Landon created this perfect balance of entertainment and thought-provoking subject matter with heavy stories and drama. We were able to sort of straddle that fine line of being able to be entertaining and sweet and teach these messages about love and family but also tackle some really heavy, hard-hitting issues. It wasn’t hammering it over their heads, they weren’t shocked by it, we weren’t breaking any ground. But, we were telling stories that were relevant to the time and are still relevant today in a way that made people stop and think without being offended.
SP: It sounds like your life has really been kind of a balance between entertainment and thought-provoking issues as well.
MG: Right! My life has been exactly that. Focusing on the entertaining and the thought-provoking.
SP: What are some projects you’re particularly excited about right now? I know you’re an advocate for hospice care and for adding more pediatric hospice homes in the United States. Can you elaborate on that?
MG: The ultimate goal would be to have pediatric hospice be a standard of care on a national level. I can’t even imagine to think of it as a global issue but to start nationally is a first. There are just three standing pediatric hospice homes in the US. That has to change. I’m already starting to brainstorm. I talked to my husband about all of this before I came here and he said “Why don’t you do it here? In New York? We need it.” So I started doing some research and found that there is not one standing pediatric hospice facility in New York City. I’m already making a list of people in all kinds of fields, that I can go to and say “What’re we doing? What can we do?”
SP: That’s perfect. Combining your entertaining and thought-provoking sides right there.
MG: Right. If I can’t use all of the contacts that I’ve made over the years to do something good for people what’s the point?
SP: How can we as individuals get involved in advocating for hospice care?
MG: The best way is to learn as much as you can and find out where there’s need and change it. Fulfill the need. The need is everywhere. Listen, we all wish the words “children” and “hospice” did not go together but they do. And it is a reality. And it is incumbent on us to make sure that these children don’t suffer needlessly.
SP: Hospice is not a fun subject to talk about, and it’s not something to get excited about. What is something you could say that could get people excited about furthering this mission of caring for people in these tough times?
MG: It’s not fun to talk about but it’s the one thing we all are going to do and experience. We’re going to experience loss, and we’re all going to die. Nobody doesn’t die. No one gets out of here alive. And, I believe the transition from life to the next life should be as revered and celebrated as the transition in, and birth. It’s part of the human experience and it’s something we need to teach people not to be afraid of. Because it’s gonna happen and we gotta find a way to make it gentle.
Thank you to Melissa Gilbert and the team at Tidewell Hospice for inviting The Suncoast Post to be a part of your special event and cause. For more information, you can visit Tidewell Hospice.org
Photos from The Suncoast Post