Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect that Stagg and Nicholson were coworkers at another preschool in Independence, not Ott Elementary.
Water, crackers, gum, chapstick, lotion, tissues, a stocking hat – these everyday items might seem small or insignificant, but as they pile up on a table at Ott Elementary School in Independence, students begin to see their value.
So do Amanda Hanna and Debbie Nicholson. When Laura Stagg, Hanna’s mother and Nicholson’s coworker at an Independence preschool, underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer, this simple list took on a newfound meaning. Nicholson recalled that water and crackers were “about the only thing that tasted good to Laura” and that tissues wiped away both a runny nose and tears.
Before treatment, Stagg – who died in May 2017 – would always put a piece of gum in her mouth to ward away the procedure’s nasty aftertaste. To pass the time, she’d do crossword puzzles or complete pages in her daily devotional.
Now, Hanna and Nicholson include these and other goods in cancer-care packages for their local nonprofit, Laura’s Little Bits of Comfort. The initial inspiration, which stemmed from Stagg’s penchant for taking cookies to her nurses and fellow patients, has now grown to serve five area cancer centers and often brings in carloads of donations. On Wednesday, Ott and William Chrisman High School students teamed up on a service project, packaging more than 100 bags and creating handmade cards for the organization.
“Usually, nurses give the bags to people who are newly diagnosed,” Hanna explained. “We get a lot of thank-you notes. That means the world to us. It means we’re making a difference.”
In fact, the nonprofit has generated more of an impact than either Hanna or Nicholson anticipated.
The cause started as a preschool “kindness project” that Nicholson and Stagg brainstormed after Stagg’s diagnosis. The two early childhood educators sent out a request for donations to their students and other students. Now, Nicholson and Hanna have passed out more than 1,400 bags.
“It was on Laura’s bucket list that this continue,” Nicholson said. “One night I stayed with her in the hospital and got on Facebook. I started reading her messages that said, ‘What can we do to help?’ and ‘I want to bring stuff.’”
“But we never dreamed this would happen.”
As Hanna and Nicholson observe the students folding and packing their bags, which bear hand-scribbled illustrations and words of encouragement, they can’t help but reflect on these moments of community connection.
Neither can Katie Laughlin, the William Chrisman student council’s outreach chair and project organizer.
“We were totally blown away at the amount of support that we got from the elementary kids,” Laughlin acknowledged. “We’re helping them develop their leadership abilities, and they helped us exceed our goals. My favorite part of organizing this was seeing everyone come together.”
The charitable effort builds on a strong relationship between the two schools. During the school year, high schoolers serve as tutors for the young learners.
As Chrisman senior Adreal Bell helps third grader Jaxin Johnston with his card, she talks with him about spelling and penmanship. Yet he’s also learning a deeper lesson.
“It’s helping me build some courage and help others who need it,” Johnston said.