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ConKerr Cancer: Bringing Pillows and Comfort to Sick Kids

Cynthia Kerr has devoted herself to bringing a little color and lots of smiles to the hospital rooms of children, one pillowcase at a time.
Cindy Kerr of ConKerr Cancer
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Chris Crisman

Cynthia Kerr's home in Wayne, Pennsylvania, has been taken over by pillowcases. Floor-to-ceiling piles are everywhere, sorted by design—butterflies, princesses, dinosaurs and superheroes for little girls and boys; lipstick, rock stars, cars and computers for tweens and teens. The doorbell rings, and a volunteer worker for Cindy's nonprofit group, ConKerr Cancer, arrives with yet another batch. The two women exchange smiles and laughs, knowing the handmade items will elicit the same reactions from those who will eventually receive them—children struggling with life-changing injuries and illnesses. "We've given away more than 340,000 pillowcases to everyone from toddlers to teens, and e-mails keep pouring in from parents who say the cases have helped their kids get through all the poking and prodding and fear," says Cindy, 54. "That's our mission—to lift their spirits and brighten their days."

Cindy's dedication is truly heartfelt. ConKerr Cancer began in 2002 after her 12-year-old son, Ryan, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. "I took him to the doctor after he banged his right knee in a bike accident, and by chance they found the tumor," she recalls. "We were in shock when we learned that around a third of kids with the disease don't make it. But we held on to the hope that Ryan would be a survivor." Shortly after he began chemotherapy at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Cindy thought of a special way to cheer him up. "I've been sewing since sixth grade and had a lot of leftover fabric," she says. "I figured a fun pillowcase would be the perfect gift for a kid stuck in a hospital bed. I found some cloth with hamburgers on it, which is his favorite food, made a paper pattern and got to work."

Ryan was delighted with his present. And during the five long nights that Cindy sat with him for that initial round of chemo, the idea of making cases for other stricken children came to her. After Ryan was discharged, Cindy quickly made up her mind to take action. She had been a stay-at-home mom since the first of her three children was born in 1984. But with a master's degree in business and several years of experience in marketing, Cindy was confident she could launch a successful nonprofit. The entire family— husband Gavin, 54, a corporate executive; daughters Ashley and Katie, then 18 and 15; and, of course, Ryan—agreed. After a friend of Ryan's suggested the name ConKerr Cancer, the family gathered around the dinner table one night and came up with the group's tag line, "A Case for Smiles."

"Everybody really pitched in," Cindy says. "Gavin gave up his home office space so I could have room to set up shop. He also helped me organize a glow-in-the-dark evening golf tournament to raise money for fabric and sewing supplies. The girls asked friends and parents to contribute to the cause and held their own fundraisers. Someone we know ran a triathlon and asked people to sponsor him by donating to ConKerr Cancer."

Cindy also taught the kids, Ryan included, how to use the sewing machine. He helped make pillowcases when he felt up to it, but successive rounds of chemotherapy increasingly sapped his strength. "There were some days when he could barely get off the couch, so we watched a lot of animal and cooking shows on TV," she recalls. "He longed to go back to school and be with all his friends. We had tutors come to the house, as well as a drum teacher, so Ryan could keep up with at least one of his passions. But the sports he loved so much weren't possible, and that really devastated him."