Until his mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, Matt Ferguson said he was just like any other high school freshman. All he thought about was football and girls.
But on an August day, his father called a family meeting and told Ferguson and his sister, Kelsey, their mother had cancer.
“Everything changed. Their whole world changed,” said Ferguson’s mom, Julie, who is now a cancer survivor. “He had to learn how to take care of himself and others. It was a real turning point in Matt’s life.”
In fact, the turning point took on a life of its own when he put together a few bags full of comfort items for women who were undergoing chemotherapy alongside his mother.
Nearly five years later, Matt’s Chemo Bags have provided care and comfort for at least 9,000 cancer patients. He has been encouraged by several awards for his work, including the 2012 Nickelodeon Teen Halo Award and the 2011 Compassion Award sponsored by Breast Friends. He also applied for and received a $2,000 grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
In the bags are things like a pillow, scarf, hand sanitizer and moisturizer, moist wipes, body lotion, a teddy bear, socks, mittens, puzzles and knit hats – just about anything that would provide comfort to a patient and help pass the time during treatment.
Ferguson said the bags are constantly evolving because people who have been touched by cancer want to help. “I have had people make super nice quilts and donate those. I have a lady who sews little fabric tissue holders. It’s amazing how many people have stepped in to help the cause,” he said.
He got the idea for the bags from his aunt. When his mom was diagnosed, her sister sent her a bag that contained a blanket, pillow, nail file, body lotion, a teddy bear and other items.
“It had ‘Fergie’ written on it and I noticed my mom took it everywhere she went – to the beach, shopping and day-to-day chores,” he said. “It was almost weird how much stuff she could fit in there!”
When he kept his mom company during the treatments, he noticed a lot of ladies had no one with them and nothing to comfort them during the treatments, so he started making bags for them.
“I asked mom and the nurses what they thought people used during chemo and surprisingly, I could find them at the Dollar Tree, which was really handy. I originally did five bags and gave them to the clinic where my mom was being treated.”
Soon he started delivering a couple of bags a month. Then people started writing letters and sending donations. “I said, ‘Okay. This is weird, but I can make more bags.’”
Ferguson, who at the time was a student at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, Ore., started putting his name and phone number in the bags. “After the fourth or fifth month, I was delivering 35 bags a month to three different clinics!”
He says letters from people who have used and appreciated the bags make him want to keep making more.
“One of my favorite letters is from a daughter of a lady who received one of my bags – she said when her mom got the bag, it was the first time she smiled since she was diagnosed. It really didn’t hit me until I heard that the mother died wrapped in my blanket. That was early in my whole bag experience and it solidified the question [about whether] I should keep doing this or not. It was a driving force.”
Ferguson brought bags to the spring conference of the Oregon Association of Student Councils. “We set up in a huge room and made an assembly line. There were 1,300 kids, so we made about 800 bags in 45 minutes. It was crazy. The best thing about it was that kids from across Oregon delivered them to their part of Oregon.”
Ferguson and his mom log some 20 hours a week now taking phone calls, answering emails and putting together bags.
“When I go to speak with people about this at businesses or high schools, I tell them the biggest thing I learned is that if you have a passion for something, you have an opportunity to take that passion for whatever it is and help people with it. Great things will come from it.”
Ferguson currently is studying business at Northern Arizona University and continues making the bags. In fact, his dorm room is stacked with enough materials to make many more. FBN