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Bigger & Better

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A homegrown charity is now helping cancer patients all across Florida and beyond

As life goes, 2014 was a difficult year for Pam and Henry Sawyer. Pam, an English teacher at Seminole High School, was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer. A week later, they learned Henry had bladder cancer. Determined not to be defined by their illnesses, the couple planned to face their cancers together with a positive outlook.

“I know it sounds weird,” says Pam, “but we never felt like it was devastating news. We listened to our doctors and never read about our diseases on the internet. We just took it one step at a time.”

Pam’s first step was chemotherapy. On her first visit, she was greeted by an oncology nurse who helped allay her fears, saying, “Pam, you’ll be fine as long as you wear brighter lipstick and bigger earrings.” Those words turned out to be prophetic.
Until she began treatment, Pam never knew or appreciated the depth of dedication of the gifted health professionals and staff at AdventHealth (then Florida Hospital). During that time, the teacher learned a life lesson. Whether it was words of encouragement from a nurse, a hand-knitted cap from an anonymous patient to cover her balding head, or a stranger in a restaurant saying she looked beautiful – it was the small acts of kindness that made a big difference in her outlook and recovery. 

“Those people gave me hope and comfort,” says Pam. “It felt good to know someone else cared.”

During her 18-week journey, in which she lost her hair and suffered indescribable bouts of exhaustion, Pam mustered up the energy to help other women know someone cared about them, too.

“I was one of them,” Pam says, “and I knew what it was like to need a boost during those dark days.”

Taking her nurse’s words to heart, she had an idea to brighten their days. With the help of a few close friends and family, Pam began making handmade earrings at her home – the bigger and more beautiful, the better.

Pam brought the group’s handcrafted earrings to her infusion center and, at the suggestion of a good friend, hung them on a Christmas tree. Seeing the delight of the staff and patients choosing a special pair for themselves was therapeutic and inspiring.

A year after beating breast cancer, Pam retired from a 34-year teaching career. With more time on her hands and not one to be idle for long, Pam expanded her group of volunteers, and she gradually grew the number of infusion centers to which she could deliver earrings. The women came to be known as the Earring Angels. By 2016, Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings (BLBE) had become a registered nonprofit charity. 

Since Pam’s diagnosis, BLBE has grown exponentially, garnering attention in states as far away as Texas and Pennsylvania, where other groups have reached out to Pam to help them replicate the BLBE concept in their communities. Currently, BLBE has trees in 27 infusion centers throughout Florida and one in Pennsylvania. Thirty core volunteers, several of whom are cancer patients and survivors, stay constantly busy making and distributing the jewelry.

As one volunteer explained, “My radiation center had a tree. Seeing those beautiful earrings made just for us was a great pick-me-up. It felt as if someone cared. Now, I get to do the same for others.” 

As of January 2020, BLBE has created and donated 70,000 unique, handmade earrings.

Pam says this could not have happened without her dedicated volunteers and the inspiration they get from the many thank-you notes that pour in from BLBE recipients. She is also grateful for the financial support she has received from local businesses like Lucas Nursery, which for the past three years has donated money from its annual Christmas fundraiser. Not least of all, Pam is thankful to Henry, her husband of 32 years, who she says puts up with a household full of women creating jewelry at their home every week. 

From the first pair of earrings Pam gave to her oncology nurse in 2015 to the tens of thousands of women who have picked a pair of earrings made by the Earring Angels off a Christmas tree, there is no greater satisfaction than knowing Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings made a woman’s day a bit better because she knew someone cared.

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