Volunteers sew pillow purses for women recovering from breast surgery.Photo by Susan Roche

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Special to the RoundTable
On Nov. 7, more than 90 participants produced 400 pillow pouches in the 8th annual P3 Event for breast cancer patients in Evanston, Glenbrook, Skokie and Highland Park hospitals. A P3 is a protective pillow-purse that provides physical and emotional support for patients after breast surgery. This soft pillow purse cushions the underarm area, and its wedge shape holds the arm away from the body. An adjustable strap keeps the pillow in place without having to use sore arm muscles to “clutch” it. Inside the purse is a smaller removable pillow which provides comfort when using a seatbelt.

Maria Poeppelmeier, herself a survivor, adapted the pattern from the American Sewing Guild and founded her P3 program in 2008 because she wanted to use her sewing talent to give back and support breast cancer patients during recovery. Hundreds of recipients have appreciated this gift over the last eight years. “We’ve received so many heartfelt thank you notes from patients who are personally touched that each pillow is actually homemade for them,” she said.

An example of gratitude comes from Connie Conley, who said to Ms. Poeppelmeier: “I just wanted to thank you personally – I’ve had breast cancer twice and both times I was given a pillow and I still have both. This is such a wonderful program and those pillows are so comfortable when you leave the hospital because you can feel every bump the car goes over! There are many survivors in this room today – I’m not quite sure of the number. So, thanks again.”

“It’s all about the power of volunteerism – that’s what makes the difference,” said Ms. Poeppelmeier. Initially, 32 friends gathered in the Poeppelmeier home and sewed 40 purses. Because of increased need, the program grew considerably and an organizational structure and a larger venue were required. Meg Claggett, Susan Kapche, Debby Schwab and Paula Selvig joined Ms. Poeppelmeier and over the years her P3 Team has created a network of volunteers, including men, women and children.

This year, 227 guests were invited to Trinity Lutheran Church and more than 90 volunteered, including three generations from one family. Fourth-year volunteer Kathleen Bonnefoi is the nurse liason from the Northshore Hospital Breast Center in Evanston. She is part of the medical team that provides pre-surgery instruction and post-surgery care for cancer patients. It is she and her co-workers (also volunteers at the event) who distribute the 400 pillows to the teaching nurses.

Reusing and recycling materials continues to be one of the driving forces of this project. The fabric used is from the “stash” of leftovers from Ms. Poeppelmeier and Ms. Kapche, both professional seamstresses. Prior to the event, 12 to 20 volunteers cut and package fabric for bags, straps and pillows and pre-sew the straps and pillows. At the actual event, there are nine stations with 5-7 people at each, as well as a stuffing room, where the pillows and bags are filled with fiberfill batting. This year there were 18 sewing machines humming, 12 ironing boards and16 irons being put to heavy use, and about 100 pounds of stuffing utilized.

Ms. Claggett stressed that the “Support The Girls” P3 Event is totally a volunteer effort, not a non-profit organization. The major expenses are provided: The fabric is leftover or donated, friends provide sewing talent and labor. “We have enough money to cover our expenses,” she said, “and during some parts of the day we have more volunteers than jobs.”

Ms. Kapche added, “We are friends who like to get together and sew.”

Ms. Schwab provided a lunch and Ms. Selvig created a fellowship of doing for others. Expenses are about $800, which covers the cost of fiberfill, Velcro, the food and paper products, and miscellaneous event and sewing supplies. Raffle money and personal donations cover these expenses as well as a donation to Trinity Lutheran for use of the church.

Many volunteers in this local project are survivors; some are friends and family of those on a cancer journey; and some like a hands-on approach to helping and passing forward. “Support the Girls” is a day full of color and textures, laughter and tears, stories and speeches. At quitting time, it is bags of completed P3s ready to provide physical comfort and emotional support for breast cancer patients. When the lights are turned off, volunteers leave feeling good for completing a hands on project that provides comfort for the many recipients.