Sandy Watson of Pine Bluff lost her battle with cancer Aug. 19 but not before leaving behind a legacy of hope for cancer patients throughout Jefferson County in the form of something known as a Red Bag of Courage.
The Red Bags are indeed of a scarlet hue and contain an assortment of items intended to make the long hours spent in chemotherapy a bit less tedious. The items packed inside each bag include a bottle of hand sanitizer, a pudding cup, a pack of tissues, a bottle of water and a package of cookies.
“Sandy had been battling cancer for a long time,” said friend and fellow First Christian Church member Mandy Meaux. “When Sandy first went to chemotherapy she didn’t take anything with her and ended up being there for a long time. She saw other patients with plastic shopping bags full of snacks and other things like crossword puzzles. That was when she decided to put together bags that included comfort items for her fellow patients.”
Meaux said the name Red Bag of Courage was decided upon by Watson in consultation with her friend Suzanne Pearce.
“Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage inspired the project’s name,” Watson and her daughter Stephanie Watson wrote on a small card that they inserted into each bag. “In the novel, the young hero goes to war with dreams of glory but learns to overcome fear and doubt as he matures and courageously faces the realities of war. As cancer patients, we draw courage from families, from friends, from each other, and from our inner strength.”
“We hope that this bag will remind you of all those who keep you in their thoughts and prayers and that it will give comfort as you go through your treatments,” the Watsons wrote.
Meaux and several other First Christian Church members decided to carry on the work of their friend by continuing to prepare and distribute Red Bags of Courage to the many who could benefit from them.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people have received these bags since Sandy first started doing this,” Meaux said. “We decided to keep it going in her honor. We are hoping to begin doing this twice a year.”
Meaux said the project has several sponsors including Taco Bell and Wendy’s restaurants, which contributed individually wrapped spoons; First Christian Church, whose members donated hand sanitizer, water bottles and pudding cups; and Arkansas Printing, which donated the bags and the printing on each bag.
Meaux said she is in the process of working to secure additional sponsors as well as funding to ensure that the Red Bags of Courage continue to reach the people who receive so much from them.
“The Pine Bluff Community Foundation provided Mandy with a grant when she first began this project,” Meaux said. “I am going to see what I can do about getting the same type of funding.”
Meaux said that 100 Red Bags that had been assembled before Watson passed away had been sitting in the church for several months.
“We knew that there were perishable items in them that needed to be replaced, so 15 church members stayed after the morning service Aug. 24 to remove the expired items and replace them with the items donated by members of the First Christian Church congregation,” Meaux said. “We did it using the assembly line method and got it done in no time.”
Meaux and several of her fellow church members paid a visit to Alliance Cancer Center on South Hazel Street in Pine Bluff on Aug. 27 with 50 of the refurbished Red Bags to distribute.
Alliance Cancer Center site manager Kristin Voigt said the gesture is very much appreciated.
“Our patients go through such a hard time during their treatment and often get a bit down in the dumps,” Voigt said. “So they always appreciate things like this. It really makes them feel cared for and appreciated.”
Dr. Grae Schuster, a radiation oncologist with Alliance Cancer Center, said he expected his patients would welcome the gesture from Meaux and her friends.
“I think it is very helpful for our patients to receive these bags,” Schuster said. “It is an acknowledgment from others that they are going through a struggle and that someone cares about them.”
Dana McAllister was happy to help Meaux.
“I really get a lot out of helping people,” McAllister said. “Whenever there is something going on at church Mandy and I are usually involved with it.”
Christie Greenich was also glad to be a part of the Red Bags program.
“I just like being a part of serving others in any way that I can,” Greenich said. “I enjoy helping people.”
In total the ladies of First Christian Church distributed 50 Red Bags at Alliance Cancer Center.
“We are going to Jefferson Regional Medical Center next to drop off the other 50 Red Bags of Courage,” Meaux said.