FAIRMONT — Debbie Droppleman wants to help breast cancer patients maintain their pride and dignity.
That’s why she came up with the idea for Robes for Recovery, a nonprofit charitable organization run by employees at Fairmont Federal Credit Union.
Volunteer seamstresses at Robes for Recovery make dignity robes, or robes with velcro closures on both sides and the front for easy access during radiation treatments, and distribute them to local hospitals such as United Hospital Center and West Virginia University Radiation Centers at Fairmont Regional Medical Center, Mon General Hospital and Ruby Memorial Hospital.
Droppleman, the CFO of Fairmont Federal Credit Union and the executive director of Robes for Recovery, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007.
Starting that year, she was treated at Allegheny General Hospital out of Pittsburgh. She had a bilateral mastectomy and went to more than 100 radiation treatments.
During those radiation treatments, Droppleman wore a dignity robe made by volunteers.
In 2013, she was transferred to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. That’s when Droppleman said her battle with breast cancer was coming to an end.
“I was at that point where I received such wonderful care and support, not only from health care professionals, but from my co-workers, family and friends, I just wanted to come up with some idea to pay it forward,” she said. “I just happened to be in the shower one day and thought, ‘I’ve got to come up with some idea.’ I didn’t want to just come up with typical fundraising or something like that.”
Then she remembered the robe she received while she was taking radiation treatments and the positive impact it had on her.
Droppleman said that’s when a light bulb went off, and she developed the idea for Robes for Recovery.
She recalled when she received her robe it came with a pamphlet and a business card. She said she contacted the person who was responsible for the dignity robe and she provided Droppleman with information.
After she came up with the idea, she presented it to the Fairmont Federal Credit Union management team. She said they loved the idea, and Robes for Recovery started out as a community service project.
Droppleman said they started fundraising to make Robes for Recovery a possibility.
She said it was shocking how much the materials cost for the project. Droppleman said they always try to get bright, colorful cotton patterns for the dignity robes.
The vibrant colors plus the velcro proved to be a little costly. However, she said they look for fabric sales and can make one of these robes for anywhere from $12.50 to $14.50 depending on if the materials are on sale.
She said in 2013 their goal was to produce 40 robes in October so that they could distribute them to local hospitals during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“Our biggest challenge during that time was finding seamstresses because none of us on the management team could sew. I couldn’t sew. I thought, ‘We’ve got over 100 employees. Surely we can find somebody who can sew.’ But nobody could. We found it’s becoming a lost art,” she said.
Droppleman said employees asked family members and friends to see if they could find seamstresses for the project. Eventually they recruited enough people that they were able to produce the first 40 robes.
She said they made their first presentation at Fairmont Regional Medical Center when the first mammography suite was opened.
Along with that hospital, employees at Fairmont Federal Credit Union contacted other local hospitals to see if they would be interested. She said there was a need for the dignity robes because while they are routinely provided in the Pittsburgh area to cancer patients, they are generally not available in local hospitals.
“They were all just thrilled with the idea. Our project started and was so well received,” Droppleman said. “Hospitals just loved them and the patients loved them, so we said, ‘We’ve got to try and sustain this.’”
She said they have gone from a project to a full-blown, nonprofit charitable organization. They can accept tax-deductible contributions and hope to expand the project and involve more of the community.
But Droppleman said Robes for Recovery couldn’t have been this successful without the help of past and current seamstresses. Current volunteer seamstresses include Susie Hawkins, Barbara Scritchfield, Pat Mason, Michele Plutro, Dorothy Oliverio, Carol Ettenger and Mary Ann Devine.
She said so far Robes for Recovery has distributed more than 400 robes, and they currently have 100 in inventory.
Droppleman said this volunteer-based organization is always looking for new recruits due to increasing demands.
Stacey Harvey, the assistant vice president of sales and marketing development at Fairmont Federal Credit Union, said she has been part of the task team since Robes for Recovery’s inception.
Harvey said it touches close to home with her because her mother had breast cancer.
“It’s really such an exciting project. The feedback that we’ve gotten from people that have received them from the hospital staff ... just has been overwhelming. I think that in itself speaks to the project,” she said.
“There’s such a need for it, and it’s so appreciated. To be able to do something (for others) and give something back I think is a very good feeling.”
Email Shawnee Moran at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @smoranTWV.