When Valerie Gonzalez first dropped off the earrings she and other pre-dental students crafted for local cancer patients, she expected to drop them off and leave. But she ended up spending two hours in the waiting room talking with the patients.
“It’s these sort of things that distract them from the actual situation,” Gonzalez, who is president of the University of Florida Pre-Dental Society. “It’s good for them to be able to enjoy themselves and feel good about themselves because they’re going through chemotherapy and they’re losing hair. It’s just really important that they know that they’re still beautiful.”
The society has been creating the fashion statement for Gainesville patients since January, meeting about twice a month.
The earrings are distributed to hospitals through a nonprofit organization called “Brighter Lipstick, Bigger Earrings.” After being dropped off, they are placed on Christmas trees year-round. Cancer patients are encouraged to pick up a pair.
The students have created 543 pairs as of last month and distribute them to five chemotherapy infusion centers in Gainesville. The group as a whole has created 5,491 pairs of earrings and distributed them to 13 chemotherapy infusion centers since the project began last July.
“I think what they really liked was the fact that there’s people out there that they don’t even know that are spending hours every week making these earrings for them,” said Gonzalez, the president of the society.
Pam Sawyer, the creator of the group, was undergoing chemotherapy for stage 3 breast cancer in 2014 when her oncology nurse told her she’d be fine as long as she wore brighter lipstick and bigger earrings. Sawyer was inspired by the nurse’s advice.
She soon began crafting earrings for fellow chemotherapy patients. With the help of a friend, who was battling cancer in Clearwater, the group grew to reach 13 hospitals, including some outside of Florida.
The students got involved when Gonzalez heard about Sawyer’s group. Sawyer was Gonzalez’s freshman year English teacher at Seminole High School in Seminole County.
“We had a very close relationship,” Gonzalez said. “If I ever had any issues with school or even personal issues with my family or anything at all, I could always go to her and she’s always there with open arms and always willing to talk with me before or after school.”
Pre-dental freshman Stephanie Veloso knew Sawyer before she started college as well. Veloso attended Seminole, and although she was not in any of Sawyer’s classes, she still felt close to the teacher.
“I didn’t have her as a teacher, but that’s how bubbly and enthusiastic she is as a person,” Veloso said. “She made me seem like I was her student, and she watched me grow.”
The group is expanding into to Lake City, Fort Myers and even Chicago, according to pre-dental sophomore Carson Smith.
“I feel like actually a lot of times when you’re volunteering you don’t feel like you’re making an impact,” Smith said. “I like that I can quantify my impact.”
Gonzalez said it helps hone their skills.
“It’s really important as a dentist to have great manual dexterity skills so making earrings and using all the instruments we use helps us with that,” she said.