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Message on a Bottle



Black and white checkerboard floor. Walls of yellow, purple and red. Music of Il Divo playing in the background.

Welcome to the bright, cheery studio of Mary Edmister, Sanford volunteer from Moorhead, Minn., who has spent hours and hours making “Bottles of Hope.”

Bottles of Hope are small glass bottles that once held chemotherapy medicine. Thanks to polymer clay, a dose of creativity and 20 minutes of baking, they’ve been transformed. No two look exactly alike, but always the word “hope” appears somewhere on every bottle. Cancer patients at Sanford receive the unique pieces of art as a symbol of hope and a token of faith and friendship.

One simple idea

Bottles of Hope began in Rhode Island in 1999 by Diane Gregoire, a cancer survivor and polymer clay artist. The idea caught on, inspiring thousands around the world, including patients at Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo and Sanford Cancer Center in Sioux Falls. Sanford’s Bottles of Hope emerged from the embrace cancer survivorship program.

And Mary’s involvement? Recently retired, she was looking for a meaningful way to fill her time. If it involved creativity, all the better. The longtime quilter loves crafts of all kinds. When she heard about Bottles of Hope, she knew it was a good fit.

“I don’t have to organize anything, don’t have to clean the house, don’t have to make lunch for a bunch of people. I can just go downstairs to my basement studio,” she says. “It’s perfect for me.”

She likes the idea behind the project, too. “Certainly giving a patient a small decorated bottle is a small gesture, but sometimes it’s the little things that help people through a difficult time,” she says.

The first of many

Mary easily recalls the first bottle she made. She wrapped it in turquoise clay, then added a big pink flower with green petals. She gave it to her sister, who fights ovarian cancer. Her sister thought it was a wonderful gift and placed it where she can always see it: on her bedside table.

Mary has made many more since, including pink and white angels wearing strands of pearls. Several bottles have themes such as baseball, football, fishing or hunting.

Other people have made them, too, including volunteers, cancer survivors, family members, friends, staff and students.

“It’s addicting and really, really fun,” says Mary, laughing. “I started making them in August and in two months have made 200. A friend of mine -- Adele Schumacher -- is an important part of this, too. She’s very creative and has made many bottles.”

Lately Mary and Adele have pursued seasonal themes -- pumpkins for fall, for example. “Sometimes people mark their treatment with the bottle they receive,” says Mary. “They’ll choose a fall theme if they started their treatment in fall or flowers if they started in spring.”

All the bottles are neatly organized in a partially open display case in a busy hallway of the Cancer Center. Patients of all ages are welcome to pick out any bottle they would like. Often it becomes a cherished memento that connects them to their unique cancer journey

Spirit in a bottle

When Mary makes the bottles, she focuses her thoughts on cancer patients and what it’s like for them -- their struggles, their fears, their courage, their victories. If she’s making the bottles with Adele, they share their thoughts aloud.

“I like to think that sends a little caring,” says Mary. “That, too, is part of the bottle making.”

Mary hasn’t actually seen a patient receive a bottle, but would like to. She’s heard from staff that the response has been positive, including yet-to-be-recorded stories that reflect patients’ powerful reactions to receiving their Bottles of Hope.

“I’d love to hear those stories and collect them,” says Mary, who’s trained in journalism. “For now I’m just hoping the bottles might bring a little humor and cheer, especially to a patient who isn’t having such a great day. We want them to know someone’s thinking about them and wishing them well.”

A little bottle ... a piece of clay … a gift of hope.

Posted Date: November 2011

Message on a Bottle

The hours feel like minutes when Sanford volunteer Mary Edmister is in her bliss creating “Bottles of Hope.” What makes each one special? What do they mean to cancer patients?