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Del Webb women help cancer victims
Marian Pistocchini cuts the cloth with the Breast Cancer Awareness pink ribbon logo, the first step in making the breast cancer pillows that will be donated to Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Manteca and Modesto. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

The women who work in a small but well-appointed room at the Woodbridge at Del Webb club house call the place, tongue in cheek, “the sweat shop.”

For sure, the workers get the job done briskly and efficiently in assembly-line and strictly organized fashion. The highly in-demand product they make goes from the cutting table to a sewing table, then on to a “stuffing” table, and after that, to clipping, ironing and, finally, to stitching. No moment is wasted. In two hours’ time, they can easily complete 60 of the soft and smooth stuffed pieces packed in tall plastic bags ready for delivery to Kaiser Permanent hospitals in the area.

This labor-of-love delicate pink product is a heart-shaped pillow made especially for breast-cancer patients. These are given to them right after surgery, and to take home with them to help in their post-surgical recovery.

The benefit that the seemingly simple handmade common item provides to patients is two-fold, explained Kaiser specialist Edwin Garcia who met some of the volunteer workers at Del Webb on Monday.

 The cuddly soft pillow is emotionally comforting for the patient, he said. And, it’s physically comforting at the same time, he added. The small pillow is something that the patients can put under their arm to soothe the pain and make them feel comfortable after going under the knife, he said.

Dreanna Langdon can personally attest to that. She received one of these pillows about eight months ago when she underwent breast-cancer surgery.

“It was a very emotional gift. It just gave me a sense of, I guess, comfort that someone cared,” said Langdon who happens to be an office staff working at the Del Webb clubhouse.

Cancer pillows project brainchild of Geri Rogers

The breast cancer pillow project was the brainchild of Del Webb resident Geri Rogers. It was something she started out to do by herself, at first. She had read an article in one of her sewing magazines about this type of pillow and how women who have undergone breast cancer surgery found them very comforting, in more ways than one, right after being wheeled out of the operating room. The story was about a project in Denmark.

Rogers read the article in October which happened to be Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It immediately lit a light bulb in her head. Having taught sewing out of her home years ago – her class was called Kids Can Sew – she decided this was something she could do to help breast cancer patients. She went to Jo-Ann’s Fabrics and Craft in Manteca and purchased yards of textile material with the breast-cancer awareness design – the pink ribbon which represents breast cancer. She made 60 pillows and gave them to Kaiser Permanent in Manteca where she was a volunteer at the hospital gift shop. She was actually a volunteer there when she started making the pillows. The gift shop has since closed but she remains an off-hospital volunteer. In fact, she was just named Volunteer of the Year.

Before long after donating the initial 60 pillows, “the hospital kept saying, ‘we want more, we want more,’” Garcia said.

As Rogers received more requests for the pillows, the Breast Cancer Pillow Workshop at Del Webb was born. That was 10 months ago. In that time, they finished 333 pillows - and the number keeps growing as the volunteer Del Webb crew continues to meet at their “sweat shop” – the arts and crafts room – every third Monday of the month from 10 a.m. until noon or 1 p.m.

Each sewing session averages 11 or 12 volunteers. Some of them are regulars; others come whenever their time allows. “They can just drop in,” Rogers said, adding with a smile that if they miss a work session, their wages won’t get docked. Her crew playfully refers to her as their project manager.

The work is very organized, with every step of the process clearly cut out for each of the volunteers to follow. The job starts at the cutting table where the heart-shaped cloth pieces are cut. From there, the pieces go to the sewing table where they are sewn together. That done, the work moves on to the stuffing table where a volunteer puts the stuffing inside and the pillow takes shape. Another volunteer then hand-stitches the side where the stuffing was inserted. Finally, a pink card the size of a business card decorated with the cancer awareness pink ribbon symbol is attached onto the pillow using a safety pin. The note on the card reads: “This hand-sewn pillow was made especially for you with Hope, Love and Prayers.” By Kaiser Permanente Volunteers.

They also have a quality control volunteer. On Monday, the job went to Janet Kattenhorn who said as she eyeballed the finished products, “I’m looking for booboos.”

Rogers donated all the materials she used for the first 60 pillows that she made. Once the workshop was put in place with volunteers signed up, Kaiser Permanente started donating all the materials that were needed to make the pillows.

“We’re just supplying the labor,” Rogers said.

Previous sewing or quilting experience is not required to become part of the volunteer crew. Sometimes there are exceptions, such as Margie Hanz.

“I used to work at a garment factory in Texas long time ago” where the work was like a production line, smiled Hanz, a Del Webb resident.

The workshop has one volunteer whose job is not directly involved in making the pillows. He’s Warren, the husband of Rogers. He is a volunteer on the ethics committee of Kaiser Manteca.

“He helps me cut up the fabrics at home, so he’s a big help,” said Geri Rogers who stores the fabrics and other materials donated by Kaiser.

A volunteer coordinator at the hospital comes and picks up the finished pillows for distribution to Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Manteca and Modesto.

While making the breast cancer pillows is a labor of love that they take to heart, the volunteers also enjoy other perks of the job.

“It’s social as well,” said volunteer Sally Murray of the monthly sewing bees.

“I just love giving back to the community,” said Rogers who, with her husband, moved to southwest Manteca about 10 years ago before making the moved to Del Webb. They have previously lived in Fremont where she and her husband were also involved as volunteers at Kaiser Permanente there.

“I like to do craft work and quilting,” she said, hobbies that she has pursued since she was in high school. When she was 55, she opened a sewing school and started teaching sewing in her home. The home-based franchise school was called “Kids Can Sew.