A new nonprofit is putting a fresh spin on an old idiom while helping cancer patients squeeze some joy out of their medical journeys.
"When life gives you lemons, laugh out loud," cancer survivor and Lemons of Love Northwest volunteer Sarah McLain said Friday.
The ladies (and one gentleman) of Lemons of Love Northwest have embarked upon a venture to show those in the throes of the disease that they're not alone.
They hand-craft tote bags and fill them with items cancer patients need — tissues, water bottles, lip balm, lotion — as well as a few sweet surprises, like chocolate-covered blueberries or inspirational pictures drawn by local elementary school kids.
About once a month, these love-filled bags are delivered to cancer centers such as Kootenai Clinic Cancer Services and Cancer Care Northwest.
“Everybody loves the picture,” said Cathy Kobs, who founded the LOL Northwest branch with friend Sue Edwards. “That’s the first thing they say. They’re not ‘get well’ pictures, just happy pictures."
Edwards and Kobs met the founder of the original Lemons of Love, cancer warrior Jill Swanson Peltier, during a LeMons endurance race in Arizona last spring. Both retired, the ladies had been looking for a volunteer opportunity to make a difference in people's lives.
“Cathy and I said, 'Wow,'" Edwards said. "'What a great thing to bring to the Northwest.'"
With Peltier's blessing, they began the process of gathering materials and obtaining a nonprofit status. They delivered their first bunch of chemo care packages in September.
“The things that are in these bags are the kind of things I wanted when I was in chemo,” McLain said. "I know that it gave comfort, and it continues to give comfort."
When Edwards and Kobs discovered LOL, their good friend Cheryl Breeden was fighting a nasty cancer.
"She certainly was in the forefront of everybody's minds," Kobs said. "Everybody knows someone who has dealt with cancer."
Through failing health, Breeden helped her friends with the bags and believed in the cause until the end. She died Oct. 2, but her friends, husband Dan, and sister Donna Grabenstein have carried on the work with her always in their thoughts.
"I’m hearing her voice a lot these days," McLain said. "What I just heard was, 'This is so awesome.'"
"That was really important to her," Grabenstein said. "She and I went to Spokane to buy fabric together, and that was the last time she ever went shopping."
The LOL totes are distributed to patients by social workers for protection purposes, but touching stories are returned to the volunteers by staff members who interact with the patients.
"The bags are given to social workers, who use their discretion of who needs a little ray of sunshine in their day," said Tolli Willhite, Kootenai Clinic Cancer Services community relations outreach coordinator. "I have the honor of meeting the gals from Lemons of Love and telling them about our patients and what a gift this is to them. They give those bags to people who need to know that somebody is thinking about them."
Post Falls Kootenai Clinic Cancer Services social worker Jessica Blankenship summarized the sentiment in a thank-you note to the LOL team.
"I had the great joy of providing the donated Lemons of Love bags to patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment," she wrote. "I want to let all of the people behind this donation know how incredibly special the recipients feel. The smiles and joy the bags bring is quite powerful. The beautifully created bags and the special children’s hand-drawn picture are much appreciated. Thank you for the time, energy and love put into each bag."
LOL Northwest uses donations from friends and the community to fill the bags. Members will happily accept donations of cozy socks for women and men, fragrance-free lotions and lip balms and other items that will bring cheer and comfort to chemo patients.
To donate or for info, visit www.facebook.com/lemonsoflovenorthwest.