Maria Perez makes sure cancer patients know people care about them.
Having cancer can make one feel isolated, even when you’re surrounded by family and friends. That’s one reason Maria Perez founded Bags of Love Foundation, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit that donates beautiful canvas tote bags filled with warm blankets, lotions, lip balm, lozenges, washcloths, fuzzy socks, and other toiletries and items to cancer patients in northern New Jersey hospitals.
“When you have cancer, sometimes you feel like you’re fighting this battle alone,” Perez said. “Bags of Love is a way to show people that they’re not alone and that we care about them.”
Perez knows firsthand. She’s a cancer survivor, and her sister-in-law, Olinda Perez, succumbed to breast cancer at age 43. She’s the central reason that Perez founded Bags of Love. “Olinda’s kindness and generous spirit lives on through her children, Claudia and David, who helped make Bags of Love possible,” she said. “At the time of her passing, Olinda was uninsured, but that didn’t stop her from trying to help others, always giving what she could and supporting other patients with her positivity. We wanted to continue her legacy through Bags of Love.”
According to Perez, cancer patients, especially those who are uninsured, often receive treatment without the comforts many of us take for granted. “That’s where Bags of Love comes in,” she said.
Throughout the year, Perez with her niece and nephew, Claudia and David Perez, and a handful of volunteers, distribute what they call “chemo care kits” to predominantly low-income cancer patients through hospitals and cancer centers in northern New Jersey. Each kit comes in a high-quality tote bag and contains items that “we hope will make a difficult time a little more bearable,” she said.
What makes the donations even more special are that they’re hand delivered by Perez, Claudia, David, and other Bags of Love’ volunteers. Their first delivery was this past June to cancer patients at The Cancer Center at Saint Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, N.J. Saint Michael’s was chosen because that’s where Perez’ sister-in-law went.
At the hospital, Claudia gave a bag to a patient who was sitting with her sister. The patient and her sister were puzzled. They thought the bag was lovely and wanted to know how much it cost. When Claudia told them that it was free and that this was a way to honor her mother’s memory, tears were shed. “And there were many hugs,” Perez said.
Claudia, who is 18 now, was 12 when her mother died. “We know the bags won’t cure cancer,” Perez said. “It’s a bag of goodwill. We hope it will make a difference and we see how appreciative everyone is who receives them.”
Claudia is currently in college. She and her brother, David, who’s 14, still accompany their aunt to St. Michael’s and Jersey City Medical Center to deliver the Bags of Love. Perez is hoping to expand to other hospitals. She’s in talks with administrators at Hackensack University Medical Center.
The reactions from patients and medical staff have all been positive. An administrator sent a note to Perez telling her that the patients absolutely love the bags and many tear up when they receive them. One patient even made a donation to a charity upon receiving the bag.
The bags and products are all donated. Perez, who works as the director of Audience Website Operations for PR Newswire in New York, runs Bags of Love as a volunteer. She raises money by hosting tricky tray events, fundraisers, and by reaching out to various companies for donations.
She’s in the process of planning her next big fundraiser, which will be a Zumbathon where people can take a class. All monies raised at the event, which will be held in February, go directly to purchase the bags and products that Perez and her volunteers deliver to cancer patients.
February 13, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN