Brookfield High School teacher Jessica Gardner was driving to school one recent, cold day.
“I thought back to when I was bald and I was like, ‘Wow, if I was bald it would be even colder,’” said the cancer survivor who lost her hair during treatment. “I just thought about collecting hats. I wanted to do something for the holidays to give back.”
The hat donation drive she initiated turned out to be wildly successful and grew in ways she never anticipated.
“It got overwhelmingly huge,” she said.
For someone going through cancer treatments, a hat is a symbol as much as a practical garment.
“I lived in a beanie when I was bald,” said Gardner, who primarily teaches freshman English. “I slept in it, I wore it around the house, I wore it outside. Hopefully, patients will get a lot of use of them.”
Yet, a hat was something she got after she started treatments, which gets to the point of the drive.
“The point is kindness and to not have to buy the things that are trivial,” she said. “You have to pay for your MRI, you have to pay for the chemo, you have to pay for the radiation, but why should you have to pay for a $5 hat? You shouldn’t have to.”
Gardner put out the call for beanies and warm hats through Facebook, at school, at church and among friends. Each group came through famously. She collected more than 600 hats, three times her goal of 200.
“A lot have been hand made,” she said. “I have a woman who brought a bunch to me from here at the school, her church made them. There had to be at least 50 hats there.”
promoShe received hats that have color schemes obviously related to sports teams, and kids hats featuring rocket ships, John Deere, the Grinch, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, dinosaurs and emojis. Some of the hats were fleece-lined, and then there is the hat that came with an attached neck warmer.
She also accepted money – more than $500 – that she used to buy hats, for postage to send hats out of the area, and for bags because one of the places she was donating to required hats to be individually wrapped.
During Thanksgiving break, Gardner delivered hats to Cleveland Clinic, Blood and Cancer Center in Boardman, two of the local Hope Center for Cancer Care locations and was looking for other sites.
The Hallie Strong Foundation learned about what she was doing through her cancer support group Cancer is a Mother: Moms Fighting Cancer on Facebook, and offered to contribute socks – one pair for each hat. Other people gave her gloves and mittens.
“This is something way bigger than I ever thought it would be,” Gardner said.
Many people asked Gardner if she was going to collect hats again next year, something she hadn’t contemplated when she got the idea in the first place.
“I guess I am,” she said.
The success of the drive leaves her grateful that she can entertain such questions at all. Dec. 6 was her “cancerversary,” the anniversary of the day she was diagnosed, and in January she will be three years cancer-free.
“I’m excited,” Gardner said. “I’m just being a normal toddler mom, which is stressful to say the least, but I love every second of it. (Daughter Savannah is) potty training and asking to go to school and all that stuff. I’m back to work and my life is back to normal, as normal as it can be. I can’t complain, because I’m still here.”