Sometimes a seemingly small moment can completely alter the trajectory of your life. A conversation with a stranger, joining a gym, or even receiving a gift from a friend can inspire someone to take a leap in an exciting direction. There are a plethora of these transformative instances that can come to mind. The three just mentioned, though, actually happened together in the same narrative, resulting in the creation of a nonprofit organization based in the community.
The story starts in 2009 around Christmas time. Robin Redfern, a 1988 Beaver Area School District graduate who currently lives in New Brighton, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The treatment was taking a difficult toll on her both emotionally and physically, and she felt like she didn’t have another ounce of fight left in her. She was in the hospital and announced to her husband that she was ready to give up on her battle against cancer and stop receiving treatment.
At that moment, a woman turned the corner and approached Robin, asking her if she’d like to talk. Robin was initially hesitant because of her deep ongoing struggle, but she relented and sat down with the woman. Although Robin doesn’t remember the specifics of their conversation, she felt a great deal of comfort by the end of it. The woman, who had approached Robin out of nowhere, impressed upon her to keep fighting and gifted her with a bag full of items. Robin made a promise to herself that when she got better, she would pay it forward to others. She was inspired and began assembling gift bags in 2010 to distribute to women going through breast cancer treatment just as she did.
Fast forward several years to 2018 when Beaver resident Jennifer Temple received her own breast cancer diagnosis. She and Robin became friends through an exercise class at the YMCA. Through their relationship, Robin was able to offer advice, encouragement, and support to Jen as she underwent treatment.
“Robin delivered a bag to me towards the end of my treatment, when I was at my lowest and when I felt defeated. I knew in that moment that when I felt stronger, I was going to join Robin and give back to others,” Jen remembers.
Robin has been able to deliver bags to cancer treatment patients since 2010 thanks to the support and generosity of volunteers and donors. In 2018, she gave out 100 bags to patients at Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Beaver. Thrilled with what her team of volunteers and donors was able to accomplish to that point, Robin knew they could help in even bigger ways. Bags & Blessings was formed as an official non-profit organization in March 2019 and discussions on how to raise funds to further their mission began.
Robin had been mulling over the idea of holding a walk or 5K fundraiser. She hadn’t mentioned this idea to Jen yet, but when they saw each other next at exercise class, Jen asked Robin why there wasn’t a local walk in Beaver for cancer. The ladies were delighted to find their minds had been on a similar track. The rest, as they say, is history.
Jen joined the Bags & Blessings team as the Marketing Director and plans for the first 5K Fun Walk/Run started. They decided to hold the first race in September 2019 with a path through Beaver and Bridgewater. By race day, over 40 businesses around the county joined in their mission to help cancer patients by signing up as sponsors. The Bags & Blessings team was thrilled with an incredible turnout of almost 400 participants. Thanks to the race’s success, Bags & Blessings was able to distribute over 120 bags in December 2019.
While COVID-19 created uncertainty surrounding how feasible it would be to hold events, that didn’t slow Bags & Blessings down. They forged ahead with their plan to hold their second annual race in September 2020, trusting that their plans would work out, even if they looked a little different than the year before.
Despite the circumstances, the race ended up being even bigger than the first one.
Jen said, “We were overwhelmed with emotion at how well our race went in 2020. Our committee of amazing volunteers worked hard to pull off the race in 2020 in the middle of a pandemic. It was wonderful to see so many families, friends, and survivors in attendance.”
After the second race, Bags & Blessings was able to distribute over 200 bags to five cancer treatment centers, including UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Beaver.
But that’s not all they accomplished in 2020. In the spring, they delivered Blossom Bags consisting of a plant and natural body care items to UPMC Hillman Center in Beaver. Then in the fall, they delivered “Pumpkins for Patients” there as well, thanks to a donation of pumpkins from Mark Ondrusek at Beaver Super and the help of Mr. Martincic at Beaver Area High School, who burned the Bags & Blessings logo on wood slice ornaments.
The new year has already proven to be a big one for the organization. At the start of January 2021, Bags & Blessings announced their new Tree Memorial program. This program allows people to purchase trees in honor or memory of a loved one. The trees are then planted in Brady’s Run Park in the spring and fall. Within weeks of announcing the program’s start, the Phase 1 planting for the spring of 2021 was full. They are now into planning for Phase 2.
Bags & Blessings also started support groups in partnership with JP Counseling and UPMC for survivors and caretakers this year.
“We realized the need for support groups in our community. Not only for survivors, but also for caretakers. These support groups are about coming together and sharing struggles and victories and to feel a connection to others who know what you are going through. We are thrilled to partner with JP Counseling and UPMC,” Jen shared.
Upcoming dates for the support groups are listed on their website and those who are interested in attending are encouraged to register in advance.
Planning for the 2021 Annual 5K Fun Walk/Run is also underway. If you’re interested in participating, you can mark your calendar for Saturday, September 11, 2021.
The American Cancer Society estimates that one out of every three Americans have a probability of developing cancer at some point. Thanks to Bags & Blessings, those in Beaver and the surrounding areas may be able to find a little bit of extra comfort.
Jen added, “Robin and I say Bags & Blessings isn’t about us, it’s about serving God. We want our community to know that Bags & Blessings is here, ready to serve, and ready to support you!”