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Soderholm makes pillows for breast cancer patients

JULIE BUNTJER/DAILY GLOBE Joyce Soderholm (third from left) shows some of the pillows she made for breast cancer patients at Sanford Worthington’s Cancer Center. Joining her are (from left) Oncology Certified RN Tami Anderson, Office Coordinator Colleen Jansma and Sanford Volunteer Coordinator Jerre Wiertzema.

WORTHINGTON — It’s often the simple things — a smile, a kind word, a hug or a thoughtful gift — that can brighten the darkest of days for people living with chronic illness or facing the unknown.

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The simple act of showing care for someone and what they’re dealing with is a lesson Joyce Soderholm learned early in life. Her mother had raised her and her siblings to be kind to others — to offer help and carry out random acts of kindness.

It’s why the Worthington woman will deliver a pan of bars to a local business, why she helps with the Community Christmas Basket campaign, and why she has sewn more than 100 heart-shaped pillows for breast cancer patients at Sanford Worthington’s Cancer Center.

“It’s another way of helping others,” she said. “Mom really taught me that when she was alive.”

Soderholm lost her mother to lymphoma three years ago last Christmas.

“When your folks are gone, you learn so many lessons,” she said.

Other lessons, though, have seemingly been with her for a lifetime, such as her love of sewing. Soderholm’s mom spent many hours at the sewing machine, and the joy found working with needle and thread is something that carried over to the next generation.

“My mom taught me to sew, and it’s just kind of evolved from there,” Soderholm said, adding that those first lessons came while she was a 4-H member growing up in Rock County.

Today, she serves as a judge, traveling from county to county across Minnesota, judging 4-H entries in the clothes you make and clothes you buy categories. She’s even judged at the Minnesota State Fair and the Iowa State Fair, and hopes to one day judge at the South Dakota State Fair.

As she shares her knowledge with 4-H’ers and encourages them to do good work, she is also offering encouragement to others through her own hand-crafted items.

Last summer, while doing some volunteer work at Sanford Worthington Medical Center, Soderholm was asked by former classmate, friend and Sanford volunteer coordinator Jerre Wiertzema if she would consider helping with a special project.

“She said she had a project she’d like me to think about, but I didn’t even have to think about it,” Soderholm recalled.

Wiertzema, who had just returned from the Healthcare Auxiliaries of Minnesota convention, brought back an idea to make heart-shaped pillows for patients going through radiation and chemotherapy for breast cancer.

“It’s a special shaped pillow that they put underneath their arm,” Soderholm explained.

The pillows are designed to reduce pain from surgical incision stretching and pulling, underarm pressure and swelling, shoulder tension and accidental bumps.

With her sewing skills — Soderholm has done everything from altering prom dresses and clothing to creating baptismal gowns from wedding dresses — it seemed a simple way for her to help those in need and honor her mother at the same time.

“The hospital auxiliary said I could buy the fabric and the stuffing and bill the auxiliary, but I decided to do this to honor my mom,” she said. “It’s made with a lot of love and special thoughts of my mom.

“I feel when I’m working on my pillows, she’s looking down from Heaven,” she added.

Initially, Soderholm made the pillows from flannel material thinking they would be best because the fabric is so soft. However, after getting feedback from some friends who’d actually used the pillows, she learned flannel was often too warm. She now uses a cotton-polyester blend fabric, and can make four pillows from just two-thirds of a yard of material.

While Soderholm chooses to purchase much of the fabric from Crafty Corner in Worthington, she found some unique material while vacationing in Hawaii in February.

“I met a couple on the cruise from Indiana, and they bring two suitcases and only pack half of a suitcase with clothes. The (rest of the space) is full of fabric. She’s into quilting and she was telling me where to go to do fabric shopping.”

Since returning from the trip, Soderholm has made more than a dozen pillows from the Hawaiian fabrics and, since starting the project last fall, has completed 110 pillows for breast cancer patients at the Oncology Center.

“I’ve had a lot of friends go through breast cancer treatments, so I’m doing this for them,” she said. “It means so much.”

Once each pillow is finished, Soderholm attaches a tag to it with words of encouragement for the recipient and an explanation that the pillows are made by the hospital auxiliary.

“These pillows just mean so much to me and it’s good night work while I’m watching basketball and football,” she said. “I just can’t sit and do nothing.”

Besides, Soderholm said spending time at her sewing machine is good therapy for her. She recently went through a health scare with spots on her lungs, and sewing kept her from dwelling on the problem.

With her own private sewing room at home, Soderholm said her three daughters always knew that “if Mom was in the sewing room, she needed a time-out.”

“I’ve tried quilting but I don’t like it,” she said. “I think quilting is so exact. With regular clothes there’s fudging here and there.”

These days, when she’s not making pillows for breast cancer patients, Soderholm is doing alterations and earning a little extra spending money to spoil her and husband Tom’s 10 grandchildren. The kids range in age from 17 to less than a month old.

One of her grandchildren — Tate — led Soderholm to another project crafting cranial care bears and care packages for families with children diagnosed with craniosynostosis (the absence of a soft spot). Soderholm compiles about four care packages per year for families who suddenly face a lengthy hospital stay. The packages contain everything from personal care items to blankets and socks.

“I’m working on prayer chains right now,” Soderholm said of the 9-inch ribbons that include a special saying or Bible verse and are given to the parents.

She’s also considering helping with another project — NICU Angels — in which donated bridal gowns are used to create special dresses for premature infants who don’t survive.

“You sew little outfits … and the parents can pick out these special dresses,” Soderholm said. “I have four wedding dresses that people have volunteered. I’d like to start doing that, too.”

Soderholm retired in 2012 after 31 years as a paraprofessional for District 518. She worked primarily at Central Elementary and Prairie Elementary in Worthington. Today, she continues to volunteer at Prairie Elementary, as well as in her church, at the hospital and the Dayton House. She also “runs a lot of errands” for her family’s farming operation.

“I’m busier in retirement and I love it,” she said with a smile. “I’m helping others, and Mom taught me that. It was just those little things.”

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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