When Vonda Braden sits down to sew, thoughts of a dear friend she lost to cancer and a precious grandson treated successfully for a brain tumor are always in her thoughts.

Braden, a resident of Blount County, worked in the Blount County Schools for 26 years, spending 12 of them as teacher Janet Carver’s assistant at Mary Blount Elementary. Sadly, Carver passed away in 2015 from cancer. Braden said her close friend was an example of someone with a caring heart who put others before herself. It was an example Braden herself wanted to carry on.

It was Carver who got Braden into sewing purses, or pocketbooks as Braden calls them. Carver would sell them and take the money to buy treat bags for cancer patients at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

“She made the treat bags for cancer patients while she was a cancer patient herself,” Braden said of Carver. “She was like a daughter to me. After she passed away, I was thinking of something I could do in honor of her.”

What she did was sell a few of her pocketbooks, collecting $120. Braden turned around and gave that money to Mary Blount Elementary because the school was constructing a memorial garden in Carver’s honor.

The next year, Braden said she raised $480 selling more pocketbooks, and also gave it to the school. The memorial garden has been completed.

It seems Braden’s handiwork became more and more popular, as she was able to give $800 that following year to Mane Support, an equine-assisted grief counseling center in Maryville. Braden said Carver’s two young daughters spent time there.

Sewing to give

As 2019 came into view, this retiree said she set her sights again on an organization that helps people in crisis. It wasn’t too hard to come up with one: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. That’s because her grandson, Landon Jackson, was successfully treated for a brain tumor there and is enjoying his active live again.

Jackson was diagnosed with a brain tumor back in 2016 and was first treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Then when the tumor came back, he was referred to St. Jude.

His latest scan revealed nothing but scar tissue, Braden said. This grateful grandmother now has been collecting the money she’s earned from selling her bags. So far, she’s raised $1,000 and will sell her handmade pocketbooks through the rest of the year, with all those earnings going to St. Jude.

Braden sells her wares at Tennessee Sally’s (7623 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway) in Townsend. She said it was just coincidence one day when she showed a friend of hers the bags and asked if she thought they might be marketable. Turns out, that local shop was looking for products just like hers. Braden hooked up with Tennessee Sally’s and has been sewing for the shop ever since.

She purchases her supplies at Hobby Lobby and other local stores. The fabrics she chooses includes lady bugs and puppies for little girls and color combinations preferred by adults.

“I have hundeds of patterns,” Braden said. “After I make something, I am ready to move on to something else.”

The pocketbooks are reasonably priced — $10 for the small ones and $20 for the large. She pays for her supplies out of the proceeds and then gives the rest away.

Blount County has been Braden’s home since she was born. She and her husband live in the Carpenters Campground area. Their grandson lives in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. Braden said he will be the grand marshal at his town’s Christmas parade this year.

Braden retired in 2010 but said she has so many fond memories of her classroom time and of Carver. She said the atmosphere was like one giant family.

“I loved that place,” she said. “I have memories that I will never forget.”

Even before this year’s donation, Braden said she has given to St. Jude because of its mission of eliminating childhood cancer.

The hospital has a fundraising arm that helps pay for its many programs.

No family ever receives a bill for the treatment it receives there.

Whatever she manages to collect by the end of the year will go to the Memphis-based hospital, Braden said. She also knows the holiday season is fast approaching, so she might see an upswing in purse purchases.

“I better get busy,” she said.

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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