Circle of Hope Bracelets Organization Continues Founder’s Mission
June 2, 2008 – In the late 1990s, breast cancer survivor Fran Lefrak-Brown, an artist in search of a new creative outlet, began making jewelry. She worked with beads to design earrings, necklaces and bracelets, and in the process accumulated quite an inventory of raw materials. Lefrak-Brown’s husband, Jerry Brown, who was always supportive of her artistic endeavors, also brought what some might describe as a typically male perspective to the creative process. One day he said to her, “Fran, why don’t you quit buying new supplies for a while and use some of the stuff you’ve got stashed all over the house in boxes and drawers?”
Circle of Hope bracelets are on display and may be purchased at the Siteman Cancer Center’s Barnard Health and Cancer Information Center in the lobby of the Center for Advanced Medicine, 4921 Parkview Place, in St. Louis. The information center is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Cash, checks and credit cards are accepted. For more information or directions, call 314-362-7844.
To see available bracelet designs and place orders online, go to the Circle of Hope bracelets Web site at www.circleofhopebracelets.org. The site also lists other retail locations where bracelets may be purchased.
And that’s what Lefrak-Brown did. From her stockpile of beads and silver, she designed a memory-wire bracelet capable of fitting any wrist. She took a few to a local craft fair and sold them within 30 minutes. Lefrak-Brown realized she had created a bracelet with great aesthetic and commercial appeal. Looking to the future of her new enterprise, she knew immediately what she would do with the profits – donate them to cancer research and education. Thus began the community-service organization known today as Circle of Hope Bracelets (COHB).
Volunteers Carry on
Lefrak-Brown started recruiting volunteers from among her friends to make and sell bracelets. Her beads, silver and other jewelry-making supplies filled not only boxes and drawers throughout the Brown household but also cabinets and closets. Volunteers of all ages and from all walks of life became frequent visitors to her kitchen. “The more bracelets they made, the more they sold,” says Brown, who serves as chairman and president of the COHB board. “And all the profits were going to cancer-related charities.”
For the volunteers who create Circle of Hope bracelets, jewelry making is more than work – it’s also a chance to catch up with friends. From left, Eloise Arvidson and Barbara Marquard share a light moment with office manager Charlene Hall.
Jeanie Heller was among the first volunteers to work with Lefrak-Brown. “I was on the board of one of the organizations to which Fran donated funds,” says Heller, now a member of the COHB board. “I became fascinated with what she was doing, and it didn’t take me long to see that this was going to be something huge, something that could make a difference. I wanted to be part of it.”
As those first years went by, demand for Circle of Hope bracelets increased, the volunteer pool grew, and more cancer-related organizations benefited. But then the unthinkable happened – in 2002, Lefrak-Brown began having health problems. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that July and passed away in August.
“I went to the volunteers and said, look, Fran was the driver of this,” Brown says. “We still have a big inventory of finished and unfinished goods. We can finish fabricating the bracelets and then wind things up. Or we can carry on as Fran would have.”
The vote was unanimous: Circle of Hope Bracelets should carry on. The enterprise continued out of Brown’s condo for another several years. “I had women running in and out of the place all the time,” he says. “The joke was that they were my harem.” Eventually, the decision was made to apply for nonprofit tax status, which was granted in 2004. The operation moved to its own offices and developed into an organization everyone agrees would astound and thrill Lefrak-Brown.
Driven by Passion
Today, individuals and retailers throughout the United States sell Circle of Hope bracelets, among them the Barnard Health and Cancer Information Center at the Siteman Cancer Center. Over the past three years, COHB has recorded sales of approximately $1 million annually, which equates to more than 30,000 bracelets sold each year. An average of 16 cancer-related organizations in each of those years received contributions of $5,000 or more, with total donations for each year ranging between $400,000 and $470,000.
Among those regularly receiving donations is Siteman. In August 2006, the COHB board approved a commitment to donate $100,000 to the cancer center to fund developmental research projects in the areas of breast, lung and prostate cancer. In December 2007, the board approved an initial donation of $5,000 to Siteman’s Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program, a support and research program focused on young women with breast cancer and young survivors of the disease.
“Our mission is to support those organizations we believe are doing the most in research and education,” Brown says.
Despite its continuing growth, COHB remains much as Lefrak-Brown first envisioned it. Approximately 400 volunteers in the St. Louis area make all the bracelets, either gathering at the organization’s offices on Wednesdays and every other Saturday or working individually out of their homes. People throughout the country – most touched by cancer in some way – volunteer their time to sell bracelets in their communities. The bracelets also are sold in a variety of retail stores. Marketing is strictly by word-of-mouth, although a new Web site at circleofhopebracelets.org holds promise for developing new customers and sales outlets for the bracelets. The staff remains small and consists of two full-time and two part-time employees.
“I don’t think you could find many organizations like ours because in large part we are driven by our volunteers and their passion for what Fran started,” Heller says. “The camaraderie among those involved is truly unique, which makes this fun for all of us.”
Office manager Charlene Hall agrees. “Everyone is generous with their time and resources. Not only do people contribute their professional skills in areas like graphic design, law and finance, but they are always there when we need supplies. All I have to do is put up a note or make a few calls, and contributed items like bubble wrap, Styrofoam popcorn and bags start showing up.”
Barb Marquard is typical of the volunteers making bracelets. Marquard was a member of the same gym as Lefrak-Brown and met her there in 2000 when Lefrak-Brown was selling bracelets. “Fran loved baseball, and I remember all of us sitting in her kitchen making bracelets, listening to the game and talking. I know Fran wanted to make a big deal of this – she was so committed to it – she just didn’t get the chance.”
Fortunately, the message Lefrak-Brown wanted to convey through her bracelets – hope, optimism, peace of mind and enthusiasm for life – held a universal appeal for her friends and others. With her Circle of Hope bracelets, she left a legacy of beauty that continues furthering the cause of cancer prevention, treatment and research.