Ideas can spring from some of the most interesting places. Some call it providence and others coincidence, but whatever it is it often strikes at meaningful times.
A year ago this April, Coeur d’Alene resident Cathy Kobs was enjoying stock-car races at a raceway in Tucson, Arizona. While wandering the grounds of the raceway, she was drawn into a booth of a company that was making the fire-retardant suits that the drivers were wearing. Here she was able to speak with the company’s owner, Jill Swanson-Peltier. Also at the same booth was a display of handmade tote bags and information on the Lemons of Love program, something Jill had created in 2014 after a stage 3 colon-cancer diagnosis and rounds of chemotherapy. During this time, Cathy’s friend Cheryl Breeden, a retired first-grade teacher from Coeur d’Alene’s Fernan Elementary, was going through chemo.
“As soon as we saw it, we thought it was incredible and wanted to bring it to Coeur d’Alene,” recalled Cathy. “I knew that we wanted to do it and that we would already have the people to help us do it as well.” The women continued to talk, and with Julie’s blessings, the Lemons of Love Northwest was being born.
The purpose of the Lemons of Love program is to bring a few comforts and joys to those in our area undergoing chemotherapy, an incredibly difficult cancer treatment. The organization’s motto is based off the popular phrase: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” however, its version is: “When life gives you lemons, laugh out loud.” LOL bags are each hand stitched, currently by four local volunteers. Inside there are a variety of small comforts designed to brighten the days of those going through treatment. These include: organic body lotion, Claeys Old-Fashioned Lemon Drops, dark chocolate Acai, organic ginger tea, a Lemons of Love water bottle, a bottle of lemonade, a Lemons of Love “Fighter” silicone bracelet, comfy socks and a “happy” picture drawn by a child. Each item serves a specific purpose, from helping alleviate metallic tastes from a patient’s mouth, curing an upset stomach or bringing empowerment to cancer fighters. One piece in particular seems to get the most positive feedback from patients. “Oh my goodness, the drawings from the children; people absolutely love them,” said Cathy.
Cathy is one of several retired school teachers in the group, and her daughter-in-law currently teaches second grade. Every two months, students at both Sorensen and Fernan Elementary are given the task of drawing not a “get well soon” card but a scene or something that makes them happy. Those drawings are then placed alongside the comfort items in each Lemons of Love bag. Local volunteers also put ChapStick, Kleenex and lozenges, and have recently received large fabric donations as well to add to the original totes.
With four volunteers stitching each tote bag by hand, the group can currently do about 60 of these chemo care packages each month. Twenty-five are delivered to Cancer Care Northwest in the Spokane Valley, with the additional 35 being divided between chemo care centers in Couer d’Alene, Post Falls, Sandpoint and St. Maries. Once the bags are stitched, organizers make sure all the essential items make their way into the bags, and several people set out each month to hand deliver the bags to the regional centers.
“While we don’t get to hand them directly to the patients, it’s very rewarding to see how excited the staff gets when we show up. Around Kootenai, we’re simply known as ‘the bag ladies,’” said Cathy.
As Lemons of Love Northwest approaches one year of helping our local cancer patients, they’ve relied almost entirely on word of mouth and networking for donations. Just about all of the members are involved in book clubs, women’s networking groups, sororities and other organizations. At meetings, they are able to ask for some of the smaller items like tissues, lip balm and socks, and the community has also been generous with cash donations in order to buy other essentials for the totes.
“What we get from people and how generous they are is really amazing,” said Cathy.
From its original 50 bags per month, Lemons of Love Northwest has been able to bump up another 10 bags per month as more people volunteer and support the organization. While they don’t have any immediate plans to get out the more than 1,000 monthly that the Chicago-based chapter distributes each month, there is still room for additional growth. “I was talking to a staff member at Kootenai, and she told me that they get about 40 new patients each month, just in that one facility,” said Cathy.
Several of the volunteers have had their own battles with cancer and truly understand the difficult times these patients are going through. Cancer is a disease that is almost impossible not to be affected by whether it’s personally, a close family member, friend, co-workers or neighbor, chances are high that you know someone battling this horrible disease. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2017, there will be an estimated 1,688,780 new cancer cases diagnosed and 600,920 cancer deaths in the US. It’s estimated that 7,300 Idahoans will received a cancer diagnosis this year, while nearly 3,000 will succumb to the disease.
Groups like Lemons of Love look to provide a break from the pain, doom and gloom, of a cancer diagnosis. Those who take on the challenge of beating cancer with a positive attitude and zest for life often live longer than those who choose not to take their battle head on. They might not be directly saving lives, but by bringing a little comfort, joy and positivity into a patient’s life, volunteers at Lemons of Love Northwest are definitely making an impact.
If you or your family has been touched by cancer and would like to volunteer your time to help others, Lemons of Love is happy to hear from you. Opportunities include sewing totes, gathering items for the bags, stocking bags each month and transporting the bags to local cancer centers. Monetary donations, as well as items for the LOL bags, are also always accepted. You can learn more by visiting the group’s Facebook page at Facebook.com/LemonsOfLoveNorthwest or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sadly, the group lost one of its inspirations for creation when Cathy’s friend Cheryl passed away this past October. Fortunately, Cathy and others like her continue to do their part to honor the memory of their friends and loved ones, as well as show support and belief to those in the community who are undergoing one of the most difficult experiences in life.
“We’ll continue to make bags and deliver them as long as we continue to have the community’s support,” said Cathy.