WALNUT CREEK -- When multiple myeloma robbed Concord's Suzanne Stewart of her vitality and of the energy for the cooking and baking she loves, Pronto Cleaning Solutions came in to ensure one thing -- that her kitchen would sparkle, free of charge.
In one of life's incongruous coincidences, Pronto president and owner Kelly Allison stumbled upon the idea of donating her company's cleaning services at approximately the same time Stewart was receiving her paralyzing diagnosis.
"I was on YouTube, thinking about an idea I had for cleaning cancer patients' homes," recalls Allison, whose business is based in Walnut Creek. "And it was great, because the idea was already there -- the Cleaning for a Reason Foundation. All I had to do was sign up for it."
Founded by Debbie Sardone in 2006, the national nonprofit organization settles for wiping out grime, if not cancer itself, with local cleaning companies offering four pro bono house cleanings to cancer patients. The company began with one woman and one simple principle -- something in the life of a cancer patient should be free.
"I had a company called Buckets and Bows Maid Service in Lewisville, Texas," Sardone begins, in a phone interview from the foundation's offices in that city. "I shared our internal policy of free cleanings at a conference and other people wanted to know how we did it. I realized, gosh, this should go national."
Like a locomotive without brakes, Sardone's momentum has carried the idea across the country, resulting in 1,002 cleaning service partners, 11,683 patients served and just under $3 million in donated cleanings.
"Once a company proves they are insured and bonded and that they do criminal checks on employees, we sign them up and encourage them to get the word out," Sardone says.
Stewart heard about the service from a social worker at the dialysis center where her nearly defeated kidneys were being treated.
"They knocked me back with chemo for six months," the 64-year old says, "then I had a bone-marrow transplant in July. My immune system went down to nothing, to zero."
Exhaustion stills her voice, until she's asked about Pronto.
"They do general cleaning for me," she says. "I don't watch them, I just know it's nice and clean when they leave. They are a blessing: it just lifts your spirits and makes you feel better."
Then, as if the verbal animation has erased her breath -- but not her appreciation -- she adds, "It's a gift."
For companies like Pronto, it is entirely an exercise in giving. Alison explains that Pronto house cleaners are paid, with the company donating the time and materials as well as a minimal fee ($20 a month is the minimum) to support the Cleaning for a Reason Foundation.
Supporting Sardone's premise -- that giving leads to getting -- Allison says four-year-old Pronto has gained residential (paying) clients, after initially specializing in commercial work.
"All of our home customers are significant, but when we help, when we say thank you for an opportunity to help, we get people calling us," she says. "But more than that, it's the one woman I can't forget, who kept trying to give us tips. Later, I found out she had passed, but it stuck in my mind how she wanted to give a little back."
Sardone approximates the number of Bay Area partners at nine, but is thrilled to have signed her first east-of-the-Caldecott-tunnel cleaning company.
"These aren't big, super-well-off companies. These are mom-and-pop companies that can't just write a check ... but we can clean and make a difference by going out and actually helping cancer patients feel better."
Frequently, she fields questions about expanding the services to include other groups.
"We started the movement in the residential cleaning services industry," Sardone muses, her energy building as the ideas form. "There just needs to be a leader who steps up and says, 'I want to be the caterer who feeds the nation, or the lawn care provider who cares for the land.' "
To learn more about CFARF or to enroll, visit http://www.cleaningforareason.org/