When Barbara Hensley decided to leave her corporate job in 2001, retirement was the furthest thing from her mind. Hensley, of Shakopee, Minn. (pop. 20,568), had lost two sisters to breast cancer and her plan was to help others with the disease.
Using marketing experience she’d gained while working as an executive for various companies, Hensley decided to help raise money for breast cancer programs while enabling other women to become what she calls "social entrepreneurs."
"I carefully researched other foundations and decided the best way to raise money was to open stores where women could be successful entrepreneurs and at the same time they would be able to give back to their community," says Hensley, 58.
So she asked companies and individuals to donate overstocked and used items to sell in an upscale store. The result was a non-profit foundation named Hope Chest for Breast Cancer and a for-profit retail store called Hope Chest, which opened in November 2002 in Orono, Minn. (pop. 7,538), and has contributed more than $150,000 to breast cancer causes.
What sets the 6,000-square-foot Hope Chest store apart from other stores is that each day customers can find something different among the merchandise, from a sterling silver tea set and ornate wooden frames, to an 1890s oak table and high-end clothing.
Julie Riff, one of 200 Hope Chest volunteers, says Hensley is an inspiration. "Barbara is incredibly dedicated to the Hope Chest mission," Riff says. "She’s always positive and sincere and has created a great place to work. I think her work ethic and unflagging enthusiasm and graciousness have inspired me the most."
Kari Berscheit, a breast cancer survivor, also volunteers at the Hope Chest store. "I always enjoy working there and I can’t believe all these items are donated," Berscheit says. "I just love Barbara."
While many cancer charities raise money for one specific purpose, Hope Chest donates money to four different areas—research, hospice care, financial support to those with breast cancer and programs for early detection.
Hensley believes that helping people with breast cancer meet financial burdens, such as paying medical bills and living expenses, is crucial. "When both my sisters were going through treatment, I got to meet women who sometimes had to put off taking chemotherapy because they had inadequate or no insurance," she says.
Financial aid given by Hope Chest often means a breast cancer patient can buy food or even pay rent. One example is a donation to the Western Communities Action Network, a social service center that aids low-income families, in Mound, Minn. (pop. 9,435).
"We had one client who was a single mom and taking chemotherapy," says Jessie Billiet, a family advocate with the network. "She needed some help paying her mortgage, so we contacted Barbara and she sent a donation which allowed the client to stay in her home."
Ultimately, Hensley hopes to expand the Hope Chest concept by establishing stores in all 50 states, which combined would raise an estimated $10 million annually.
"Doing what I am is important to me because I lost the dearest women in my life," says Hensley, whose sisters Kathy and Patsy died in 1994 and 1996, respectively. "One day I’d love to be sitting on my front porch surrounded by my great-grandchildren. They’ll ask me what I did with my life and I’ll say I had the opportunity to work with wonderful people to help fight breast cancer. And they’ll look up at me and ask, ‘What’s breast cancer?’"
Visit www.hopechest.us to learn more.