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The Angel Factory

What started as a simple gift for a friend became a nonprofit that raised nearly a million dollars for cancer research.

By Bobbie Burnett, Annapolis, Maryland

As appeared in

My garage is overflowing with cardboard boxes. Stacks of storage containers line my spare bedroom and foam packing pellets are scattered all over the basement.

Am I moving? No. But I’ve been moved. By angels.

Thirty years ago, my husband, Jerry, an electrical engineer, got a job in Annapolis. We bought a house here and one of the first people I met was Susie—a bright, energetic, witty mom of three. We belonged to the same women’s organization. Spending time with Susie, I forgot I was new in town. She made me feel so at home.

But our carefree days were cut short. Just before Christmas, 1982, Susie was diagnosed with leukemia. She started chemotherapy treatments right away at Johns Hopkins oncology center in Baltimore. I called her often, wrote her little get-well cards and visited her in the hospital. Then another setback: Her husband was laid off. “I’m so worried about all the medical bills piling up,” she confided during one visit. “Can you please pray for us?”

So I did. Every day. But I wanted to do more. Friends of ours shuttled her kids to after-school activities, others cooked meals and baked desserts.

Now, as Jerry can attest, I’m no cook. I am an artist, though. One night, lying in bed, I tossed and turned. Lord, help me use my art to help Susie. My mind drifted to a stained-glass class I’d taken a while back. I usually worked with oil paints, but there was something about the way sunlight shimmered through the glass that felt peaceful, almost healing. What else was peaceful and healing?

Angels.

The next morning I got right to work. I used an aqua shade of glass (Susie’s favorite color) for the body and a silvery pearl glass for the wings. It was a long, painstaking process—lining up the pattern, cutting the glass, foiling the sides. I worked a little bit at a time. Susie’s angel stood just over a foot tall and I topped her off with a golden halo and added a holder for a votive candle.

A couple of days before Christmas, I brought the angel to Susie’s hospital room. “I made this for you,” I said.

“Oh, Bobbie!” Susie gasped. “I love it! Put her on the table over there so I can see her all the time.”

Whenever I’d visit Susie, she’d tell me how much she loved the angel. I thought she was just being sweet. One afternoon, though, she mentioned that someone had asked her where they could buy one. “I told them you made it for me,” she said. “And they asked me where you sell them. You really ought to make more of these.”

More? I loved making the angel—but it had taken me almost 20 hours. There was no way I’d have the time to make more and keep up with my other artwork. I was about to tell Susie it was impossible when it hit me: I’d round up the folks who asked her about the angel and teach them how to make one too. Then we could sell them and give the money to Susie and her family to help with her medical expenses.

I invited about a dozen women—mostly Susie’s friends and family—over to my house. Right there in my living room, we cut shapes from sheet glass and wrapped the edges in foil. Even Jerry got in on the act, helping us solder the pieces together. I told Susie about our stained-glass operation. She was thrilled! Within a few months we presented her family with a check for two hundred dollars. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Word of mouth spread…fast. Soon we had 30 volunteers and an assembly line that outgrew our living room. Jerry and I cleared the clutter out of our basement and set up shop down there. “It really looks like an angel factory!” Jerry said, laughing, when he saw all of us at work.

A year after we started making angels we’d raised more than a thousand dollars for Susie and her family. Despite aggressive treatment, her health grew worse. On December 15, 1983, Susie died.