When you’re about to graduate from high school, all you hear about is how much your life is about to change. You operate every day knowing that your current journey will lay the foundation for the next chapter in your life. Hannah Cobley was preparing to begin her first year at the University of Arizona when she was faced with one of the most trying situations in her life.
Being diagnosed with cancer at such a defining age can be something that anyone would find difficult to navigate through, but after 2.5 years of treatment, she was given a second chance in life. Hannah started her own non-profit organization, Lighthouse For Hope, to support families whose children have been diagnosed with cancer by providing essential needs that most insurances do not cover.
At age 26, Hannah has had quite the journey—here’s her story:
You were diagnosed with cancer at the age of 17 years old. How has it impacted your life experiencing this at such a young age, and how did it shape you to become the woman you are today?
I am so grateful for being diagnosed at the age that I was. It was just 10 days before my 18th birthday, right after I had graduated high school. Being diagnosed in such a transitional period in my life meant that I didn’t have to adjust to school or a job. This is a vital time in everyone’s life, trying to navigate what to do next. So for me, it helped put everything into perspective.
I say all the time that I have absolutely no idea where I would be or what I would be doing with my life if I hadn’t gotten cancer. I think this perspective has a lot to do with the stage I was at in my life being a recent high school graduate. I had to grow up pretty fast and that experience has impacted every aspect of my life and who I am today.
I say all the time that I have absolutely no idea where I would be or what I would be doing with my life if I hadn’t gotten cancer.
You’re the founder of Lighthouse For Hope—how soon after your recovery did you start working on starting the organization?
I was on treatment for 2.5 years. I deferred from college for two years and then went to the University of Arizona for the last six months of being on treatment. After being at college for about a year, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Another cancer diagnosis in such a short span of time really rocked my world. I began to evaluate my own experience and started to experience survivor’s guilt. I felt this immense pressure to do something great with my second chance at life. That’s when I started to research how to start a nonprofit.
What was your biggest challenge in starting Lighthouse For Hope?
My greatest challenge was getting supporters to believe in my dream and mission. Lighthouse is a very personal organization as it stems from my own cancer experience. Believing in Lighthouse means believing in me.
How has the organization grown so far and where do you see it heading in the future?
Lighthouse has grown so much just in the past year alone! I went from working in my parents living room to an actual office with warehouse space for all our donations and merchandise. Not only is Lighthouse making a name for itself in the pediatric cancer community, but in the outside world too! I want Lighthouse For Hope to be a household name like St. Judes or Make A Wish. I hope for our resources for our families to expand, one day offering counselings for the entire family—including siblings. A big dream would be to have a LightHOUSE near every major children’s hospital we have a partnership with.
I want Lighthouse For Hope to be a household name like St. Judes or Make A Wish.
Lighthouse For Hope is currently located in Arizona. Have you been able to help families outside of Arizona? Also, do you see yourself wanting to expand in the future?
Yes! Arizona is our home and where we help the majority of our families. However, we have partnerships with several other hospitals, including Children’s Hospital Orange County and Boston Children’s. Families can apply for assistance from all over the country, but we do prefer to work with social workers at hospitals to help us find families that would best benefit from our assistance.
Is there a limit to how many families that you and your team are able to assist?
We offer many different programs for our families, however right now we offer our financial assistance to five families a month. We then offer many events for our families, including a Mom’s Night Out, the Illuminate Retreat (a retreat for young women ages 18-25 that are on treatment for pediatric cancer), our Go Gold Event, and so much more! We are currently offering essentials such as food, toilet paper, paper towels, and cleaning supplies for any Lighthouse families during this COVID-19 pandemic.
What has been the greatest lesson that Lighthouse For Hope has taught you in its first year of operation?
I learned that help comes in the most unexpected places! It’s amazing to see how people can come together. Lighthouse was a huge leap of faith. I had to put myself out there in a big way. Most nonprofits fail in their first year of operation. I made it through that first year by trusting my gut and knowing that this was what was meant for me.
What is something you wish you knew before starting your own non-profit organization?
I wish I knew how to ask for help and accept it! For the longest time, I tried to do everything on my own. I was worried that nobody would want to help or would do it differently than I wanted it to be. Lighthouse is so personal to me, so I didn’t want to take any chances. The reality is, people want to help, and they can! I wish I knew before all this started that there is no way I can do this alone.
I have learned that good things take time. As much as I would love instant gratification and to be able to make all of these big goals for Lighthouse happen now, it is just not possible. It takes time to establish yourself and get supporters to believe in your mission.
What advice would you give to other people interested in starting their own non-profit organization?
I always tell people to really know what they want. Find a specific mission and a cause that is NEEDED. The more narrow your mission is, the more impact you can have.
Does the organization have one major goal to accomplish this year?
We have so many goals for the next few years, actually! To help even more families from all over the country, grow our following and support system, take on our first employees besides myself. But the biggest one is The LightHOUSE. I dream of a house; a safe space where our families can come and experience community. This house will have a big kitchen where families can come get meals and take cooking classes. A garden, a giant pantry where families can come get groceries, a washer and dryer and so much more! Many of the families we assist don’t live in the best conditions, so this place would be a safe and beautiful home for them to come and connect with those fighting the same battle.
Most nonprofits fail in their first year of operation. I made it through that first year by trusting my gut and knowing that this was what was meant for me.
LightHouse For Hope has an “Annual Night To Be A Light” event. Can you share more about this event with us? Are there any other events you do throughout the year?
Night To Be A Light started off as a small Holiday party in a friend’s backyard with 100 people. We raised $10,000. Now it is our primary fundraiser for the year! The last two years and this coming year, it has been at a beautiful event space in Scottsdale, AZ. 250 guests and we raise lots of funds for our families! There are lots of other events we have, including little pop-up shops and markets, percentage events at stores and restaurants, and events for our Warrior Families!
Our supporters can also throw events! I always encourage everyone to have an event—you don’t need me to be there! Throw a wine night with your girlfriends and collect donations for Lighthouse, organize a kickball or corn hole tournament, have friends and families sponsor a fun run! The sky’s the limit!
Is there any way we can help or donate to Lighthouse For Hope?
Absolutely! You can start by donating to Lighthouse via our website here. You can also shop our merchandise here. Share our mission! Follow us on Instagram and Facebook to keep up with all that is Lighthouse and share with your community why you choose to support our mission!
What does a day in the life of Hannah Cobley look like?
Most days are actually pretty boring! I have an office for Lighthouse that was donated, so I try to go there every day. I feel more productive when I am there and my interns come and meet me. Sometimes I go to the hospital to meet a new family and deliver things to them. Meetings with potential donors or partners, shipping merchandise out, planning events, etc. Since I work the majority of my week alone, I rely heavily on my friends and family to keep me sane. When I’m done working for the day I spend time with them and recharge.
In your experience, what has helped you to achieve balance in your career, relationships, etc.?
Since Lighthouse is such a personal project, finding balance can be pretty difficult. It’s really hard to separate work life from personal life when they intertwine in many places. I am constantly sharing my story and information about Lighthouse. And let me tell you, it’s exhausting. The further I get away from it, the easier it gets to separate, but Lighthouse is still an ever-present reminder that I am now healthy while so many others aren’t. However, it is also a reminder that Lighthouse wouldn’t exist without my story. I can now help families whose pain I understand all too well. The good can always outweigh the bad. Cancer is bad, but Lighthouse and the hope we receive through it is so good! So balance is difficult, but I find it is easier when I keep looking for that light at the end of the tunnel.
I can now help families whose pain I understand all too well. The good can always outweigh the bad.
What has helped you get through—as you mentioned—“the dark times” when opening up your heart and yourself to other families during this process?
It’s taken me four years to realize how badly I needed Lighthouse to heal from those dark times. I have learned that it is OK to not be OK. One thing that I always tell people that are experiencing their own dark times, like cancer, is just that: it’s OK to not be OK. People often say to those fighting a battle, “You are so strong.” or “I don’t know how you do it.” That creates a separation. For me, it made me feel like I couldn’t be anything but strong and if I showed any vulnerability I would be letting people down. Cancer is ugly, painful and terrifying. So it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be scared. If you are feeling any of those things, don’t ignore it and push it aside. Let yourself feel it, if only for five minutes, then keep going. Remember that while cancer is ugly, painful and terrifying, in that you can find hope, strength and light. Pick yourself up. Or if you can’t even do that, let others help you up.
What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?
That my life has purpose! It has purpose in so many ways. It will still be hard and it will still be painful, but there is purpose in all of it. Have patience and enjoy the ride.
Hannah Cobley is The Everygirl…
Guilty Pleasure? Singing my feelings in my car while eating McDonalds french fries and drinking a Dr. Pepper.
Ideal Friday Night? Probably a big old charcuterie board, wine, and friends!
Spring or Summer? Spring! Summer in AZ is brutal.
Go-to Coffee Order? Iced vanilla latte with almond milk!
Item you can’t leave the house without? Right now, hand sanitizer! Gotta keep COVID-19 at bay!
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why? Nora McInerny! She’s an author and host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks For Asking. Her books and TED talk on grief has brought me so much clarity! She seems to pull everything out of my brain and say it way more eloquently than I ever could.