A real angel

For 26 years, Annapolis artist Bobbie Burnett has used her art to create beauty and save lives

December 11, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Bobbie Burnett proudly displays the different designs her stained-glass angels have taken over the past 26 years. She gave her first angel as a gift to a friend with leukemia. Then she started selling angels to pay for Susie Lyttle's care.

Burnett contributed only $200 to Lyttle before she died in 1983.

Now Burnett has a loftier goal spelled out in gold lettering in the middle of the wall where her angels stand watch: to reach $1 million in total donations. Her 90 volunteers, who rotate shifts in her Annapolis studio three days a week, make angel figurines and pins, along with sun catchers of birds, flowers and other images.

Katie Hood, Lyttle's 37-year-old daughter, has been one of those volunteers for the past 10 years. Her brother and sister have helped out, too.

"I feel sort of a commitment to her and a commitment to the angels," said Hood, who lives in Millersville.

So far, Burnett's nonprofit, Caring Collection Inc., has donated $755,000 to patient care at the Geaton and JoAnn DeCesaris Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Anne Arundel Medical Center and to research at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. The money has been evenly divided between the centers.

Burnett, a former art teacher, said she wants to wait until after Christmas before she releases sales figures for this year. Volunteers will review proposals from the cancer centers in February and award grants in April.

Burnett, 70, and her husband, Jerry, 73, put in six days a week in their basement studio. They continued their efforts while Jerry was treated for colon cancer in 2001. They estimate they and their volunteers have made 37,000 angels and other creatures.

"This has consumed our life for the past 26 years," Bobbie Burnett said. "This is not my work. It's my life."

This year, a $25,000 grant from the Caring Collection bought six mobile registration computers that can be wheeled to a patients' bedsides, said Lisa Hillman, director of the Anne Arundel Medical Center Foundation. In previous years, grants have bought an ultrasound machine, blanket warmer and a fiber optic device that detects tumors.

Hillman said many of the center's current and former cancer patients volunteer to make angels. Burnett's sun catchers are all over the hospital, said Catherine Copertino, executive director of the DeCesaris cancer institute.

"Small touches like that make a tremendous difference to these patients," Copertino said.

Because of reductions in federal grants, researchers are more dependent on private philanthropy, said Sherry Buckles, assistant director of development at Johns Hopkins' cancer center. Two researchers already have approached Buckles about applying for Burnett's grants.

This year, the center used its $25,000 to upgrade software and hardware for a computer and microscope that produce images of cancerous cells, said Dr. Fred Bunz, director of the center's cell imaging core facility. Because the computer peripherals were obsolete, no one could use the microscope.

"We had an expensive piece of equipment we couldn't use," Bunz said. "That's where gifts like that from the Caring Collection are really critical."

Six years ago, a Caring Collection donation paid to equip the startup lab for Hopkins researcher Dr. Leisha Emens. Emens is conducting clinical trials for a breast cancer vaccine. The trials were featured in a six-part series in October in The Baltimore Sun.

Darby Steadman, 39, a patient in the clinical trial, came to Burnett's studio Monday to make her first angel. After Steadman learned last year that her breast cancer had spread, she received an angel from Hood.

"This 'little angel that could' has provided necessary equipment to detect my cancer and develop a vaccine that could stop my cancer," Steadman said.

Burnett also saw the fruits of her labor when she went for an ultrasound at Anne Arundel Medical Center this year. The machine that the Caring Collection bought detected a tumor in her breast. Burnett had a lumpectomy in July.

"It's all meant to be," said Burnett, describing how she felt when she saw the nonprofit's logo on the machine.

It takes volunteers about five hours to make each sun catcher and 25 hours to make the largest angels, which stand 12 inches high. Bobbie Burnett rejects offers from companies that promise they can do it faster - and cheaper - on an assembly line.

"The significance of it is that it is made here by people, and their love and their care is transmitted to the artwork," Burnett said. "That is what makes them special."

College and high school students come in during the summer to cut, grind, foil and solder glass, but the organization draws on volunteers of all ages. Burnett writes up to-do lists for everyone.

Mollie Tussing, 81, of Severna Park started making angels nine years ago. She decided to volunteer after she heard Burnett speak about her cause.

"It's really, really fulfilling to come here because the energy in this room is so positive," Tussing said.

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