By Bethany Wesley
In the DIY world, it’s often said that each item is handmade with love.
For Wanda Roff, her creations are crafted not only with the greatest of care – but also hope.
Wanda, herself a cancer survivor, crochets remarkably intricate products to raise money for the Beltrami County Relay for Life and the American Cancer Society.
“Sometimes, I’ll pay for some of the supplies, like the yarn and the stuffing and all of that, but yeah, 100 percent, all of it, goes to Relay,” she said.
She started crocheting at age 4, under the tutelage of her mother. Her older sister also took to it and with each passing year they’d learn increasingly detailed designs.
Today, the three of them — Wanda, her sister Pam May of Crosby, and their mother Cheryl Kraabel of Bemidji – work cooperatively to fill orders and sell products through their online presence, WeCrochet4Cancer, a venture that touts itself as “hooked” on finding a cure for cancer.
“Every year my goal is to raise $2,500,” Wanda said. “… Last year, we made over $5,000. It was pretty awesome. We made a lot of stuff, whether it was washcloths, scrubbies. But I also made a lot of bigger projects.”
Perhaps most memorable was the elaborate elephant rug, a design that had an elephant’s face and trunk in the middle, bookended on either side with ornate, large ears. There also was a matching throw pillow.
“I get excited about doing new things but I get tired of doing the same thing over and over and over,” Wanda said.
Recently, she finished a thick, maroon blanket boasting raised letters that read, “Christ, the center of our home,” a gift for a pastor who recently married. The blanket, featuring ornate borders as well, also marked her first entry in the Beltrami County Fair.
“I made it and I’m like, “I will never make another one these again,’” she laughed. “It’s absolutely gorgeous, but it is so much work. Not in the summertime. It’s way too hot for the summertime.”
Lately, she’s become perhaps best known for her amigurumi, which refers to the art of making crocheted stuffed animals. Some of her creations have included monkeys, mice and bears. But she’s also done characters, such as Elsa, the Ninja Turtles, and Yoshi, along with popular super heroes like Batman, Captain American and Spiderman. For her son, 11, she made a Chewbacca.
“I look for ideas online. I enjoy it. I love to go on Pinterest,” she said. “But if I know that someone’s looking for a particular thing, I’ll search around and go, ‘What do you think of this?’”
More often, though, she said someone will see an eye-catching design online and post it on her Facebook page as an idea. Not for themselves, but just as a possibility.
“But then other people will see it and be like, ‘Hey Wanda, can you make me this? How much is it?’” she said.
Twelve years ago, Wanda was a first-time mother-to-be, when her doctor first felt a lump on her cervix but thought it too fast-growing to be cancer. A month later, her son, Kasey, was born, and six weeks after that, she had a biopsy.
The diagnosis was cervical cancer. She underwent surgery when her son was 7 weeks old and then endured both radiation and chemotherapy.
“It was not in the lymph nodes. It was contained. It was not in any of my other organs,” she said. “I got really lucky. It was the size of a lemon, so it was very fast-growing.”
But while the treatments fought off the cancer, they took a heavy toll. She’s been hospitalized numerous times, for everything from bowel obstructions to lymphedema to cellulitis.
“I’m here. I’m with my son, I’m with my husband, and I’m happy about that,” said Wanda, 41, who recently celebrated her 18th wedding anniversary with her husband, Ken. “But I do need those reminders sometimes.”
That’s what led her to the Beltrami County Relay for Life team.
“I remember my son must have been 2 or 3 years old. I just remember putting him to bed. … I put him to bed and I gave him a kiss good night. It was one of those nights when you’re by yourself and you just think too much,” she recalled.
“I realized, ‘Yeah, I was one of those cancer patients. I am a survivor.’ It just kind of hit you, ‘This is real.’”
She searched that night for contact information for the local Relay team. She attended the next meeting and began to get involved.
“It reminds me that I’m not the only one out there, and it also helps me because I know that because of my experiences I can help others and they can also help me,” she said.
Wanda served as the Survivorship and Caregiver lead, has given numerous speeches, and established the Survive-oars dragon boat team in 2011.
“We’ve lost three of our team members to cancer,” she said, somberly, “and we had two of them that were very sick this year that we dedicated the flowers to, which was really emotional.”
In 2014, Wanda was named a Hero of Hope, having been recognized as an individual who exemplifies a passion for Relay For Life and the mission of the American Cancer Society. That same year, she served as the ambassador for cancer survivors in the Relay for Life at the Sanford Center.
“We have such an amazing group of people in Relay for Life in Beltrami County,” she said. “… We raise $100,000 or more every year for Relay. A good chunk of that goes to our county. … You’ve got the ride shares, helping them get rides for treatment, the Look Good Feel Better program. There’s so many different programs out there, for wigs, bras, little things you don’t think about until you’re connected with it.”