Her bald head beading with sweat as she sat in the back courtyard at the Lydia Project, Bernice Hayes breaks down in tears when she recalls reaching out to the organization for financial help.
“They did a lot for me,” she said, choking back a sob, “because I wouldn’t have had nobody. I didn’t have nobody, really. I have family, but they got bigger problems than I do.”
“I’m glad Lydia could be there for you,” Executive Director Michele Canchola said from the other side of the table.
“They did a beautiful job,” Hayes said. “They did a beautiful job.”
Hayes was one of the 226,870 women the American Cancer Society estimated will get breast cancer this year, including 6,970 in Georgia and 3,570 in South Carolina. An estimated 39,510 will die from it this year, including 1,140 in Georgia and 660 in South Carolina. With October serving as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Augusta Chronicle will publish a series of articles, beginning with this pink paper, that will look at breast cancer, its impact on families, new ways to fight it and how it might help the fight against other cancers. The Lydia Project will benefit from a percentage of ad sales from today’s newspaper.
The Lydia Project is about to move into a new home that will provide it much more space and also allow it to provide respite services to women with cancer. There is a reason Canchola and Hayes are sitting out in the open courtyard, occasionally being drowned out by planes overhead and nearby church bells.
“This has truly been our second office,” Canchola said. “We can have two or three meetings out here in a day. We like this new weather because it limited us in the summer, the heat.”
Inside, piles of fabric for the project’s signature tote bags seem to be piled on every flat surface. A group of women work in a converted dining room around a table, picking out fabric that will be fashioned into a bag adorned with encouraging words such as “Faith” or “Love.”
Volunteer Hildreth Leverett said she tries to make sure they never turn a bag that is drab.
“We try to use bright colors,” she said. “That is going to lift your spirit.”
Many of the women working with her this morning have faced or are still going through breast cancer, though volunteers might not know it, Canchola said.
“They’re standing next to them right now in that room,” she said. “They just don’t know it because we don’t highlight that.”
Lydia serves all women with cancer, but, reflecting the prevalence breast cancer has among women, 53 percent of its referrals concern breast cancer patients.
Much of that assistance locally could be financial aid to women who were the only paycheck coming into the house and suddenly found themselves too sick to work and without anything to fall back on.
That’s what happened to Barbara Paul, 42, when she got breast cancer last year and couldn’t pay her electric bill of more than $300 before turning to Lydia.
“It was going to get turned off in two days, and they paid the whole thing,” she said. “That was a relief.”
Getting that financial help actually helps to make you physically better, said Connie White, who got colon cancer and couldn’t continue working as a custodian at Augusta State University.
“That helps me focus more on me getting better,” she said. “It promotes the healing process actually when you don’t have to be worried about that, too, about finances as well.”
Changing circumstances can also leave you vulnerable if breast cancer strikes. Marilyn Norris is the casualty assistant chief at Fort Gordon, and the first time she got cancer she worked for the federal government. When it came back in April, however, she was working for a contractor and didn’t have the same type of protection.
“That changed my finances, and Lydia being here was able to help me pay my rent for the time I was out,” she said.
She has been delivering the Lydia tote bags to women with cancer for five years, and many of them use it as she does – to carry a Bible around. Many of the women now recognize the bag with its distinctive purple handles, and they know what it means, Norris said.
“They know it is more than a bag,” she said. “They know it is handmade, and they know it is handmade by volunteers who care about ladies coping with cancer. When I tell them some of the volunteers could be survivors, they are overjoyed that people are actually thinking about them during that time.”
That is another of the services Lydia offers women if they want it: cards in the tote bags offering weekly prayer and occasional phone calls to check in on them, Canchola said. It touched Paul to get those calls.
“It was support,” she said. “It was a total stranger, (who) doesn’t know anything about me, but they are putting their heart out to contact me and see if I’m OK.”
Many of the women who are helped come back as volunteers and try to help others, Canchola said. Out in the courtyard, still dabbing at tears, Hayes talks about getting through the rest of her chemotherapy and using her skills with art to help support Lydia.
“These are happy tears, though,” she said. “A lot of them used to be from ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ But now I’ve got a little bit more strength behind me. I believe something good is going to come out of everything that is happening with me.”