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How One Breast Cancer Survivor Raises Spirits Through Sewing

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Joanne Downer holds up what was once a pair of plaid green bell-bottoms from the ’70s. It’s now a piece of fabric that will be repurposed into a purse for Jessie’s Bags, a mobile community service organization that has donated thousands of handmade bags to breast cancer patients.

Downer’s mother, Jessie Moore, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 2006. The two began making frequent trips to Philadelphia, where Moore’s doctor was located. During one aggressive radiation cycle, Downer drove Moore up to Philadelphia every day for a week.

“That was the exhausting week—mentally, physically, emotionally—for me and for mom,”Downer recalls.

But both women’s spirits were lifted soon after Downer picked up some fabric at a yard sale. She hoped it would give her mom, once an avid sewer, something fun to focus on as she underwent treatments and her first surgery.

Moore started sewing daily, making pillows and then eventually bags. It wasn’t long before the mother-daughter duo realized they had more bags than they knew what to do with. (Moore was producing what they later calculated to be 100 bags per month.)

“She would sew every day,” Downer says with a smile. “Even if she didn’t feel good, she might only sew a little bit—but she would sew every day.”

During trips to the hospital for treatment, Moore and Downer began distributing bags among the nurses, requesting that they give them to breast cancer patients who seemed like they were having a particularly tough day.

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Moore and Downer were no strangers to textiles. Until her retirement at age 62, Moore had worked in factories sewing children’s and ladies’ clothing. Downer recalls accompanying her mother to work at the Little Bitty children’s clothing factory in Philadelphia on Saturday mornings, where she would immediately head to the room housing all the fabrics.

Today, Downer chooses the colorful combinations of fabrics that are then sewn into Jessie’s Bags: eclectic, reversible patchwork bags ranging in size from small pouches to large laundry totes. (She no longer has to scavenge for fabric at yard sales: Some designers and businesses, like the fabric retailer Calico Corners, now donate their older fabrics to Jessie’s Bags.)

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Sitting among a colorful collection of fabrics and donning a bright pink cardigan, Moore—now 88—does not have the disposition of someone burnt out by an aggressive battle with cancer. Downer attributes her mother’s positivity to the start of Jessie’s Bags.

For its first nine years, Downer explains, Jessie’s Bags evolved slowly but organically. Enthusiastic feedback from bag recipients, along with rising business costs, prompted the pair to open a booth at Booths Corner Farmers Market in Garnet Valley, Pa.

But even with a booth, Downer and Moore were giving away more bags than they were selling. It was just more fulfilling that way. 

Two years ago, still trying to sustain the business without actually selling the bags for profit, they hatched the idea to make Jessie’s Bags a mobile community service program. Downer secured the proper licensing soon after.

Downer began asking schools, senior centers and nursing homes throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania to pay for Jessie’s Bags to come in and provide a creative space for interested students or residents. They have since formed several partnerships with such organizations—particularly nursing homes, where they make regular visits. Not only do these opportunities fund travel expenses, sewing materials and two on-staff sewers, but they also give community members a chance to create heartfelt handmade items for breast cancer patients.

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Since Moore’s initial diagnosis 11 years ago, the cancer has returned twice. But she and her daughter refuse to let anything sideline their success. This month, in addition to attending events for breast cancer awareness, they’ve decided to donate bags to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. (With the help of friends and family, they had already made 110 bags in just one week.)

“It’s nice to say, ‘We’re here in Delaware and we’re thinking of you,'” Downer says. “‘And we hope that this bag helps you have a joyful heart, even if it’s for one moment.'”

Moore is no longer sewing 100 bags each month, but she continues to work on the bags daily, often adding buttons to bags sewn by Downer’s husband, Mike, a newly minted volunteer.

Downer hopes to continue growing Jessie’s Bags and connecting with more people and businesses. She likes to describe Jessie’s Bags as a movement that is “encouraging others one bag at a time.” Each bag given away is wrapped with a note of encouragement.

“If we can do something positive, something that encourages people or makes them smile, that’s what I want from it,” Downer says. “What about you, Mom?”

“That’s it,” Moore says, nodding in agreement. “That’s it.”

For more information, visit www.JessiesBags.com.

 

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