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Feature

Hope in a Box

A breast cancer survivor sends care packages of recovery aids to women all over the world

Photos by Scott Van Osdol

The large, unadorned box that arrived on Kim Carpenter’s doorstep contained just a few simple items—a big shirt with inside pockets, a long pillow, personal notes of encouragement. But it meant the world to her.

Carpenter had just been through several grueling months of chemotherapy for her breast cancer and was about to undergo a double mastectomy. She felt lost and confused.

hands working at sewing machine

Sewing a pocket into the inside of a shirt for the Blessing Box Project.

Scott Van Osdol

“Then you see that box and open it. It’s exciting because you know somebody cares enough to send you something that will be helpful,” Carpenter says, choking back tears as she recalls that day in January 2021. “It is a blessing, even though it’s just a pillow and a shirt and a few other things. It’s hope in a box.”

Carpenter, who lives in Brookshire, west of Houston, is one of more than 6,700 women who have received a care package from the Blessing Box Project, founded by breast cancer survivor Dawn Compton, a San Bernard Electric Cooperative member who lives in nearby Bellville. And the community of supporters is growing.

Compton’s work is rooted in her own experience. She recalls crying all the way home from the doctor after learning she had breast cancer in March 2018. Through the tears, she prayed, asking for the strength to help others in their fights—though she wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. She says she’s always been a helper. Her motto: Do as much as we can for as many as we can for as long as we can and then rest.

“I was crying and I said: This is not my choice, so it’s yours. I will do what I’m supposed to do,” Compton says she told God. “I will open every door I’m supposed to go through. Put me in front of whoever needs me, who needs to hear my story.”

To keep busy, Compton started knitting caps for women who lost their hair during chemotherapy. As she worked on each one, she prayed for the person who would wear it.

people working to prepare blessing box

Clockwise from left: Gabby Smith irons for Blessing Box. Kim Carpenter, a recipient of a Blessing Box, sews for the cause. Belle Ary helps ready a shipment.

Scott Van Osdol

When she found out she would have to undergo a double mastectomy, she scoured the internet for information about what to do after the operation.

She found instructions for making a special shirt to wear and a pillow. The oversized men’s shirt called for adding two pockets on the inside to hold lengthy drains that are attached to the breast removal site. The long pillow “hugs” the upper torso, providing comfort as the patient sleeps, rides in vehicles and does other activities.

“I just started out making a couple of pillows to keep my sanity,” she says. “Now, it’s my life.”

Compton's granddaughter and Madi Compton sew shirts

Tinley Malota, Compton’s granddaughter, and Tinley’s aunt, Madi Compton, sew shirts.

Scott Van Osdol

Compton also found support through Facebook pages for women undergoing breast cancer treatment. After posting about the two shirts and pillow she made for herself, she got a private message from a Fort Worth woman asking if she would do the same for her. Compton did and sent it to the woman in a box. The woman thanked her online, which prompted several more requests.

Compton kept sewing, and the requests kept coming in. While unloading boxes one day at the post office, a friend asked her what she was doing. Compton explained, and the woman offered to help, as did others. Her first sewing group met in nearby Nelsonville.

“We thought we were knocking the world apart doing 50 boxes that day!” she says.

Her “pink sewing tribe” has since grown and meets on alternating Saturdays at churches in Bellville and Hempstead to make items for Blessing Boxes. On one Saturday, the women met to assemble contents for 125 boxes. They ended up filling 132.

Susan Scott sews pillows with other volunteers

Cancer survivor Susan Scott revels in the company of other volunteers while sewing pillows.

Scott Van Osdol

“Everybody just does their own thing,” Compton says. “I couldn’t do this by myself anymore.”

She gets help from beyond her sewing posse. Thrift stores donate collared men’s button-down shirts. Volunteers in several other states make pillows and mail them to her, and an elderly woman in nearby Industry contributes about 30 handmade pillows a month. The owner of a dry cleaner has even pressed shirts for the project.

Erika Guerrero adds pillows to blessing boxes

Erika Guerrero adds pillows to Blessing Boxes.

Scott Van Osdol

Supporters make other items for the boxes: One crafts pocket crosses with a short Bible verse, and another makes small prayer quilts. Compton also gets pens, socks, keychains and more. “I send out whatever comes in,” she says.

Compton declines payment for the items, but she will accept postage costs if the recipient can cover it. Some pay more. People donate items, prompting Compton’s daughter to create an Amazon wish list for donations.

Compton has shipped the boxes all over the United States, to Puerto Rico and to several other countries, including South Africa, Afghanistan and Australia.

“What has really struck me is the kindness I see,” she says. “People have no one, then they open their box and they are moved to tears because someone cares. It’s the difference between walking alone scared to death and knowing somebody is behind you saying you can do this.”

Carpenter felt cared for when she received her box.

After her surgery, it hurt to lower her arms all the way down to her sides. But the pillow eased her pain by wrapping around her front and tucking under her arms so she didn’t have to close them against her body. The shirt held the drains that she called annoying.

Carpenter also was moved by the personal messages written on the pillow and the pockets inside the shirt. The notes told her people were praying for her and that she was strong enough to make it through this ordeal. All Blessing Box Project shirts and pillows have similar messages.

group of volunteers holding pillows

Volunteers for the Blessing Box Project.

Scott Van Osdol

Now, after chemo, surgery and radiation, Carpenter says she’s doing great and helps out when she can with Blessing Boxes—mostly stuffing pillows since she isn’t a seamstress.

“It’s neat to have a bunch of women together working to bless other ladies,” Carpenter says. “It’s amazing what Dawn has done with this project. She’s motivated; she’s hardworking.”

Compton is well known around Bellville for her passion for and commitment to the Blessing Box Project and other community activities, said John Spiess and Lari Samford, employees of San Bernard EC.

“She is extremely active and supportive of a lot of things in our community,” Samford says.

Spiess’ wife, daughter and granddaughter volunteer with the Blessing Box Project.

“Dawn is very much a strong Christian woman, and she puts that into her Blessing Box effort. It’s like a ministry [for her],” says Spiess, who has known Compton since they were in school together. “She was always real sweet, very humble and passionate about what she does. What you see is what you get—beautiful on the inside as well as the outside.”