Helping to create hope on the wings of an angel

Caring: An Annapolis artist leads a group of volunteers in making stained-glass figures that are sold to benefit cancer research.

December 21, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Annapolis artist Bobbie Burnett does not consider herself a deeply religious woman. But ask her about her life's mission, and she will look you straight in the eye and say the angels had a hand in it.

As if to support her claim, Burnett points to a table in the center of her basement studio filled with examples of the three-dimensional stained-glass angels she has spent the past decade creating. In the late-afternoon sunlight, the figures radiate a kaleidoscope of lavender, blue and gold.

"Aren't they beautiful?" said Burnett, running her fingers along the curved edge of a wing.

Since 1982, Burnett has made and sold thousands of stained-glass angels with the help of a crew of volunteers, and donated all of her profits to cancer research. Caring Collection Inc., the nonprofit organization she founded in 1993, has given more than $400,000 in proceeds it divides equally between Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center and Anne Arundel Medical Center's DeCesaris Cancer Institute.

"It seems everyone is touched by cancer," said Burnett, 65, whose husband, Jerry, is a cancer survivor. "We make the angels to give love, hope and, for those who have lost someone, peace."

Burnett studied art at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In 1982, several years after she and her husband moved to Annapolis from San Diego, Burnett's friend, Susie Lyttle, discovered she had leukemia. To bolster the spirits of Lyttle, a mother of three, Burnett designed a blue-and-white angel out of stained glass, a material Burnett had been using to custom-make windows for local churches and bars.

"Everyone was helping Susie by bringing her meals," Burnett said. "But I can't cook, so I brought her an angel."

Lyttle died of cancer in December 1983, and Burnett set up a fund in her name at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Encouraged by friends and family -- all of whom wanted glass angels -- Burnett made and sold enough angels to donate more than $3,000 to the hospital in one year.

Since she began Caring Collection, Burnett has built a loyal force of 70 volunteers between the ages of 12 and 90, many of whom have been affected by cancer.

"The work is good therapy for all of us," Burnett said. "The studio is always alive with energy."

Every Monday and Tuesday, volunteers fill the studio in Burnett's suburban home. Besides the angels -- and pieces of glass piled in plastic bins around the room -- the space is dotted with bowls of pretzels, candy canes and brightly-colored jellybeans.

A handful of volunteers, all trained by Burnett, are working on one of the many steps involved in the process. Made with eight to 13 pieces, one angel takes approximately 25 hours to make.

First, the wings, halos and other pieces are cut out of sheets of glass selected by Burnett from a glass company in New York. Then a grinder is used to smooth the edges of the glass, which are lined with thin strips of silver foil.

After they are soldered, the angels are treated with glass cleaner and packed in shipping boxes with one votive candle and Caring Collection information card.

Every year, Burnett introduces a new color and style to the collection -- this year's angels are lavender with flecks of blue and violet.

The only part of the angels that remain constant are the wings, which are always made from milky white glass.

Over the years, Burnett's angels have become a hot item, selling from $35 to $65 each. She has a waiting list of more than 1,000 customers, and has stopped selling on her Web site -- caringcollection.org.

She has turned down offers to sell them commercially.

On a recent afternoon in the main lobby of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Burnett's booth was so busy she agreed to sell all the angels she brought for display.

Michele Phelps, an oncology nurse, said she has admired Burnett's angels on display in the lobby of the Kimmel Cancer Center for years.

"I do see a lot of sadness in my job," said Phelps, who purchased one for her stepmother. "But I think even if a patient doesn't make it, the angels can be inspirational and symbolic."

Lisa Hillman, vice president of development and community affairs for Anne Arundel Medical Center, sees Burnett as an inspiration.

"There are probably hundreds of cancer patients out there that will never know that they are getting care because of her," said Hillman.

Burnett said she often works seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. When she has a break, she likes to sail on the 35-foot boat she and her husband once lived and traveled on.

"I feel I have a responsibility to my volunteers," Burnett said.

Often, Burnett finds volunteers from among her customers.

Christy McCall of Philadelphia contacted Burnett last month, to ask if she could visit the studio and help.

During the month she spent as a bone marrow transplant patient at Johns Hopkins, McCall admired the display of stained-glass angels in the hospital's lobby.

"I was so amazed by them," said McCall, 20. "I thought they were beautiful, and could not believe that one person was making them for people with cancer."

This month, McCall and her boyfriend drove from Philadelphia to meet Burnett. They returned home with five angels -- Christmas presents for family members and friends.

"I loved meeting her," McCall said. "She's an incredible person."

McCall, whose cancer is now in remission, will have to travel to Johns Hopkins for follow-up appointments for the next few months. No matter how hurried her visit, she said she would always take a moment to gaze into the large glass case lined with many multicolored angels.

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