From Survivor to Inspirational Leader: One Woman’s Impact on Cancer Patients

Daily Point of Light # 7814 May 17, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Sarah Lister. Read her story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Sarah’s own struggle with leukemia and a life-saving bone marrow transplant transformed her into a force for compassion and change. Not content with just overcoming her illness, she went on to found The Zinnia Project, an initiative born out of her personal experiences and her desire to ease the journey for others battling cancer at the Markey Cancer Center.

Sarah’s journey into philanthropy began in the most personal way possible,a bone marrow transplant the day after her birthday, facilitated by a selfless donation from a college student. The profound impact of this experience, coupled with her friendship with the donor, fueled her commitment to get involved. The project is dedicated to delivering care packages to cancer patients, particularly those facing their battles alone.

Launched with a simple act of kindness — delivering 16 small pails filled with items that Sarah found invaluable during her treatment — the response from nurses and patients alike inspired her to expand her efforts. Over the years, The Zinnia Project has grown significantly. Zinnia Project Patient Baskets has grown to the size of a laundry basket and are now filled with over $100 worth of items that patients need for a long hospitalization.

In 2023, The Zinnia Project saw considerable growth, necessitating a partnership with Kentucky Cancer Link and the acquisition of a new office space to handle the inventory. This expansion enabled the introduction of “miniZinnies,” smaller, more portable care packages given to every hospitalized patient on the oncology floor as they arrive. These zip-pouches are stocked with essentials like eye masks, earplugs and toiletries — small comforts that make a big difference.

To date, The Zinnia Project has delivered over 200 Patient Baskets and 150 mini-Zinnies, with plans to continue as long as the need exists. Read on to find out more about Sarah’s inspiration and dedication to this project.

Sarah has increased the sizes of her Zinnia Project baskets over the years and now has a laundry basket-sized offering.

Tell us about your volunteer role.

It’s a role I created for myself to help manage the profound sense of gratitude I had after having so much support during my own cancer journey. Over the years, I’ve gotten three, four, then five volunteers to help me assemble the baskets. I’ve recently expanded the program to have an office outside of my house! When I created my Amazon Wishlist, people were so kind and jumped right in to help fill my house with boxes, but that was unmanageable for me and the others living in my house! I was so grateful when an organization here in Lexington opened their doors and let me use an office to build my baskets, put together tote bags for patients during the holidays and more. We are expanding to the best of our ability!

What inspired you to start The Zinnia Project?

I was completely floored to learn in 2016 that I had acute myeloid leukemia. I thought I had the flu – it was right after the holidays and everyone was exhausted, so I figured I was too. My boys were ages 3 and 8. I went to the doctor to see why I was feeling so sluggish. They called me at 10 pm, and he gave me about 12 hours to prepare to go into the hospital for a 30-day stay. I was completely unprepared, and my husband didn’t even know the passwords to our bank accounts – there was so much to do to be ready for a long leave of absence. It was like being abducted by aliens; one minute I was there, the next minute I was getting a picc line in my arm.

I did two rounds of those 30-day chemo stints because the first one didn’t get me in remission, so we had to do it all over again. Then there were about four or five week-long hospital stays just to maintain that remission while we waited for a bone marrow transplant. I spent about 127 days in the hospital. As bad as chemo is, it’s nothing compared to the fact that I was not able to see my children. They were too young to be allowed to visit, but they were little and needed their mom. I felt helpless, and I’m still making up for that, every day.

In all that time I spent in the hallways of the hospital, I had my husband or my mother or a friend with me. But I saw so many people in those hallways, and they had no support. I asked the nurses, how is it possible that people are here with no support, no caregiver, no family or no friends? They told me they saw it all the time. I was devastated thinking of going through this process without people. I was lying in bed one night and I started thinking about all the things I didn’t pack that I was able to ask for later from my family members and friends: a chapstick, an emory board. Little things. My husband brought me a real box of Kleenex, a real toothbrush and real toothpaste.

I saw a need and I saw an opportunity for me to meet that need. In 2017, after all the transplant drama was over – you have to stay home for 100 days after you get a transplant – I remembered the people in that hospital who didn’t have caregivers. I went to the Dollar Tree and bought 15 metal buckets, and I put toothpaste, toothbrushes, a nail file and some hand lotion in them. I took them over to the hospital and the nurses thought it was the greatest thing ever. I wanted to keep going, so I got bigger baskets and jumped on social media letting people know they could chip in. People recommended I start an Amazon Wishlist, which was brilliant, so we did that.

I was re-hospitalized in 2022 for a side effect from chemo. You’re never through the looking glass with cancer. You’re always looking over your shoulder. In the hospital, you’re responsible for doing your own laundry, and I got the idea to make the baskets the size of a laundry basket. I included items like a journal – anything I could dream up that I wanted. The basket got full pretty fast. I brought the basket to the nurse manager to emphasize that it was unscented, had no parabens and the least amount of chemicals possible. The nurses blessed my basket and I’ve been doing laundry-sized baskets since then!

Next, I reflected on my journey and thought about what I wish I’d had on day one. A toothbrush, toothpaste and a hand mirror. I started making “miniZinnies” last year. They’re made up of those immediate things you need in the first couple of weeks of your stay. They’ve been such a hit. I give them to every patient on the floor, not just the transplant patients. The whole project centers on the idea that you want to bring something beautiful and bright to patients. You can’t underestimate the power of keeping something joyful, even humorous.

Sarah’s sons help her distribute the baskets to patients who need them.

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

There’s almost nothing more important to a nonprofit organization than a volunteer. They’re at the heart of whatever program or project they choose to work with. I was the executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities here in Lexington, and it’s a small staff with a mighty force of volunteers. The mission can’t be done without volunteers!

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

My advice is to do your research and understand what the expectations will be. Make a phone call to the volunteer coordinator, if they have one, and ask them what the job duties will be. Then, just dive in! Show up and you will find – within minutes or hours – the thing that lights you up and brings you joy. That could be cleaning toilets or mailing out invitations to a gala. It runs the whole gamut!

What do you want people to learn from your story?

One of the most important things is for people who have a “gratitude attitude,” is to not wait for something to come to them. If you see something, do something. Start small. A lot of people think they have to serve on the board of directors to be a meaningful volunteer. You can start small, you can dream big and you can make an impact.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sarah? Find local volunteer opportunities.

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