Pennsylvania woman creates comfort bags after cancer battle
By MARSHA KEEFER Beaver County Times
NEW BRIGHTON, Pa. (AP) — She came out of nowhere.
A stranger arrived at a low point in Robin Redfern’s life, a time when she abandoned all hope and wanted to cease chemotherapy treatment.
Diagnosed in July 2009 with breast cancer, the New Brighton woman underwent surgery and started chemo late that September at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh.
At her fifth treatment two weeks before Christmas — with husband, Chad, at her side — she announced she wanted to quit.
“I struggled physically, mentally and I was very sick and I couldn’t get any relief,” Redfern said.
Side effects of chemotherapy debilitated — nausea, fatigue, dry mouth, hair loss.
“I was very upset and I was, of course, scared and I didn’t know what was going to come of me,” she said. “In that moment, this lady came around the corner. She asked if she could talk with me.”
Initially, Redfern declined the stranger’s invitation. She wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone.
The woman persisted. Redfern acquiesced.
“I’m not really sure what we talked about, but I know at the end of our conversation I wasn’t crying anymore, I wasn’t tearful and I wasn’t scared,” she said.
The middle-aged woman handed Redfern a gift bag with comfort items and told her she had to keep fighting.
She told Redfern lots of people prayed for her and she had to “fight through it.”
God, Redfern said, sent the woman.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he sent her to me,” she said. “I made up my mind that I was done and then here she came and I don’t even know who she was. Still to this day, I have no idea who she was. She came out of nowhere.”
‘WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING’
St. Patrick’s Day 2010, Redfern completed chemotherapy and finished radiation treatments two months later.
She returned to work “just trying to get through the days,” but also remembered the stranger who blessed her and told her she couldn’t give up.
“If I was to get better and I was to heal, I would pay it forward,” she said.
“I told my husband ‘we need to do something.'”
Redfern called businesses, friends, family asking if they were willing to donate products or money for comfort bags to give to cancer patients going through what she experienced just a year ago.
Her appeal enabled her to fill 12 bags — “just small gift bags, but it was a start,” she said.
She and her husband drove to UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital to deliver them and talk with patients.
“Everybody was very grateful,” Redfern said, but also “it was healing for me.”
BONDS FORMED, TEARS FLOWED.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with what was in the bag,” she said. “I think it just had to do with them feeling the love that somebody did that for them.”
Every Christmastime the first couple of years, Redfern said she’d take “anything I could get” to fill bags.
But the more she learned about cancer and toxins she changed to a “cleaner lifestyle,” trying to avoid processed foods and products with chemicals.
Now, she fills bags with “all organic, all natural” products — “nothing has chemicals, no toxins.”
She works with Kevin and Kelly Miller, who own Health Hut stores in Beaver and Chippewa Township, to find such products.
People also donate handmade items — things like hats, scarves, blankets. Her aunt, Darlene Thompson of Akron, Ohio, makes pillows.
Comfort items include things like lotions, lip balm, vitamin and protein supplements, unscented deodorant, toothpaste, rinses for dry mouth and sugarless snacks.
At first, five or six volunteers donated products. Last year, she said over 90 people gave financially, enabling her to deliver 50 bags to patients not only at Magee, but also to expand and deliver bags to patients at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Brighton Township.
“I have a huge group of fantastic friends that help me every year to organize and fill bags. That happens here at the house,” she said. “I’m so glad that they make that choice to be a part of it every year because I certainly couldn’t do it on my own. The group just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
In March, Redfern incorporated as a nonprofit under the name Bags and Blessings.
“I wanted a really great name,” she said. “I wanted it to be faith based. I didn’t want it to be after my name. I didn’t want cancer to have any part of it because I don’t want cancer to have any power. I wanted it to really express love.”
Another “blessing from God,” she said, was meeting friend Jennifer Temple from Beaver.
When Temple also received a cancer diagnosis, Redfern added her to the list of last year’s comfort bag recipients.
About the time Redfern was thinking and praying about creating a nonprofit, she ran into Temple, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. Temple asked whether there were any cancer walks in Beaver.
“I couldn’t believe she asked me that,” Redfern said, who entertained a similar thought.
“We should probably start one,” Temple said.
“I knew, oh, my gosh, God again just sent somebody into my life. That was a pretty powerful morning for me and I felt that was a huge sign.”
The first Bags and Blessings 5K Fun Walk/Run is from 9 a.m. to noon Sept. 14 at Thursday’s on Wolf Lane in Bridgewater. Registration can be done online at https://runsignup.com/Race/PA/Bridgewater/BagsBlessings.
Family, friends and neighbors supporting those who have been diagnosed with cancer or those in treatment are invited to participate. Leashed dogs are welcome, too.
Redfern wants the fundraiser to be “more of an event than just a run. I want it to be a community event,” she said, so she has “some great extras lined up for our runners.”
The Maybrayz, a brother-sister acoustic duo performing soul, rhythm and blues, blues and rock, will play.
“Beaver Bagel will be there giving runners a treat at the end of the race,” Redfern said.
Jordan Louise Photography of Beaver will take commemorative race photos.
The Workshop Massage Therapy of Patterson Township will offer chair massages.
A prayer tent also will be available to all, Redfern said.
“We just want to love on people. We want them to feel help and them to feel love,” she said.
And some 60 auction baskets will be raffled.
This first year, does she have a goal as to how many runners she’d like to participate?
“I did have a number in my head just ’cause I’m kind of a go-big-or-go-home girl. That’s the way I’ve always been. But now I look at it as it’s not about that. I’m just praying on who it can really help, I hope they’re there. It’s not about the numbers.”
Redfern said if anyone wants to help stuff bags at Christmastime or receive more information, they can contact her via Facebook, online or email.
Contacts are Bags and Blessings on Facebook; www.bagsandblessings.org or email@example.com.
Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/