The Giving Challenge: Running a charitable destash for kids with cancer

Giving Month
In 2018 my darling young daughter Lily was diagnosed with cancer. That day, my world tilted on its axis and I’ve been struggling to stand up tall ever since.

Photo montage of author with daughter in a hospital ward

During my daughter’s treatment we have been very well supported by a number of charities. I never thought we’d be the kind of family who would need such support. We both had good jobs, had good health and had taken all sorts of insurances out. Sadly we hadn’t expected our child to get sick.
The truth of the issue is, if you put aside all the emotional and physical hardships of cancer, cancer also costs. Here in the UK at least we have free healthcare but it still costs to get cancer treatment. It costs carers to take time off work to support their children going through treatment (I haven’t been to work in a year), living in hospital with no cooking facilities other than a microwave means you have to spend far more on food than you would normally (I have an amazing network of friends who regularly filled my freezer with home made microwave meals), and of course, the cost of travelling to and from hospital for treatment. We’ve recently been driving 34 miles a day for radiotherapy. I estimate we’ve done in the region of 4,500 miles since Lily got diagnosed in my 20 year old campervan. Research shows that families in the UK travel an average of 60 miles round trip to access cancer treatment for their children.

One of the charities that has given us excellent support since my daughter got sick is CLIC Sargent. They assigned us a social worker, Heather, on day 1. Heather is very experienced at supporting families of children with cancer and has been a great help. She helped us complete Lily’s disability benefit forms. When we were awarded an amount she was able to tell us that it was too low and that no child with Lily’s level of disease or disability had ever been awarded such a low amount. She helped us appeal our benefits award successfully. She’s kept in touch with us throughout Lily’s treatment and has applied for grants in our name when treatment has been particularly intense and required long stays in hospital. She sourced funding so we could have a week’s holiday as respite when treatment allowed it. At one point it looked like we’d have to travel to London (we’re in Edinburgh) and she told us that CLIC Sargent would provide accommodation for us free of charge if we needed it. We’re lucky that we live close enough to hospital to be able to travel back and forth but other families who come from farther afield (average distance is 60 miles for treatment) live in the CLIC Sargent villa for months at a time at no cost.

So, in short, I’ve been looking for a way to repay CLIC Sargent for all their help so that they may help another family like ours. It was during a particularly long and gruelling stay in hospital that I decided to try and set up a charitable destash. Another sewist, Portia Lawrie, had done a destash after the Grenfell Tower tragedy (a fire in a tower block in London spiralled out of control due to poor and possibly illegal application of building regs and resulted in the deaths of 72 people) and had had a brilliant response. In fact I’d bought some fabric in her destash more because I wanted to do something to help rather than because I liked the fabric. So I used her destash as inspiration for mine. I set up the @destash_for_kids_with_cancer on 26th July and by the time I closed it on 10th August we had raised £2,500 for CLIC Sargent. I was completely and utterly taken aback at how quickly UK sewists had taken my cause to heart and supported my efforts to raise money. I was also shattered by the time I called a halt on it, utterly exhausted and in need of a break. I’ve tried to distill my thoughts into a number of lessons learnt below in case anyone wants to set up their own charitable destash.

Screenshot of collage of photos of donated items

1. Getting the system right
First off, the system needs to work, but it also needs to be understandable to those selling and those buying. My plan was to never physically touch any of the materials being bought and sold. I was reliant on those offering goods for sale to also package and post the materials. I asked people to DM me photos of goods they had to sell with a description. I would list these as individual posts in Instagram. The first poster to comment “sold” under an image would win. They would be asked to pay via a Virgin Money Giving account I had set up and to DM me when they had done so. I could check the account to see that money had gone through, though it got tricky when people clicked to be anonymous and once the volume of transactions increased therefore some trust was required. I would then pass the buyer’s address details onto the seller.

By and large this meant a lot of copying and pasting and was low effort but once the volume of transactions increased dramatically I started to worry I’d be sending the wrong details around. It was at this point I had to slow down and take more care and started to worry I’d taken too much on. Bear in mind I was doing this from my daughters hospital room while she slept and was constantly having to put the phone down to talk to nurses, doctors, physios, radiographers, cleaners, play specialists etc. It was frankly a miracle I didn’t send all the wrong fabric to all the wrong people.

2. Getting the pricing right
The destash predominantly sold fabric and patterns, though some sewing tools and trims were also sold. At first I probably underpriced things as I was naive how much these things could sell for second hand. After a while though I started to get the hang of things. It also got easier as the account attracted more and more followers. Competition for items meant I started to understand what the value of items were. I was also lucky that people would send me private messages telling me how much things sold for on other selling sites. Big ticket items were great but there was also a high turnover of patterns that would change hands for £1.50 to £2 that made a significant contribution to the total amount raised.

3. Getting the destash heard about
This side of things was actually quite easy. Perhaps I talk too much to people online or I’ve been too open but very quickly friends started to share on their stories and posts about the destash, highlighting the lovely fabrics and patterns being sold and the good cause it was supporting. After the first couple of days I put zero effort into promoting the destash other than using some well used hashtags (#destash #fabricdestash #patterndestash). The UK Instagram sewists did the rest for me. You may find other efforts take a bit more time to promote. The internet is a noisy place sometimes to get heard.

4. Keeping the message clear
The name @destash_for_kids_with_cancer is a bit clunky but it also got the message across clearly. I’m no expert in setting up charitable causes but I know CLIC Sargent is the type of charity name that might not be well known to people outside the world of children’s cancer (in fact they’re currently consulting on changing their name for that reason). Therefore I wanted to make sure people understood the purpose of the destash. I also used a photo of my daughter as the cover image. A bald kid does tend to stop people in their tracks (and yes I’ve agonized over the ethics of using my daughter’s image a lot and still haven’t personally resolved that question). I also made sure to highlight the link with my normal account so people knew I wasn’t a scam artist. I was told by someone she had been asked to vouch for me because people were concerned this was a scam. How sad is that?

5. Know when to stop
Actually, I didn’t know when to stop. It was my friends who knew when I needed to stop. I have a lovely group of sewing friends on WhatsApp and we speak to each other daily. It became obvious to them that I was feeling overwhelmed by the volume of transactions and that the small number of people who were being grouchy that were getting to me. As I mentioned before, I was living in hospital with my daughter who was recovering from pretty brutal chemo. The destash had been a fun thing to start while she slept, but as she began to recover and feel better, the destash became an annoyance I had to deal with. It was at this point my friends started to suggest I take a break. Put the phone away. Initially I thought I’d stop for the weekend. After 48 hours I realised I needed a proper break. Thankfully most people were very understanding. I dealt with the last few purchases but didn’t process any new ones. And then Lily came home from hospital. It was perfect timing.

Photo montage of wiggle bags and the author with daughter at a sewing machine

Summation of my thoughts
The destash was short lived but (in my eyes) hugely successful. Friends and family have been signing up to do amazing physical feats like marathons to raise money for charity since my daughter got sick. I’d been wanting to do something for charity but caring for my daughter has been all consuming leaving no time for things like that. So to be able to mess about on Instagram and raise a huge amount for charity seems an amazing feat. I was so utterly chuffed that people would take my cause to heart and so quickly raid their stashes for fabrics and patterns to sell in aid of CLIC Sargent. Some of the goods being sold were fabulous high-end things but people had no qualms about selling it to raise cash. However it was also tiring. So very very tiring. And probably a lot of that was due to the fact I was living in hospital with a very sick child and was supremely tired anyway. I’m glad I chanced upon a system that worked well once the number of transactions increased. I’m also glad that I had a lovely group of friends who could tell me when to stop. With all that learning under my belt I intend to reopen the destash in November. I know now how much effort it can take but also how big the rewards can be for an excellent charity.

As for my darling girl, her treatment is continuing but we are feeling positive about the future. I’m feeling pretty hopeful that this period will soon be a distant memory as we get on with our lives.

Thank you for listening

Lesley King

P.S. If you’re looking for something to do with scrap fabrics that could also help children with cancer, check out my blog post on how to sew Wiggle bags. These are cloth bags that children with a Hickman line can wear to protect the line against damage (in the children friendly world of pediatric oncology a Hickman line is called a wiggly).

Circle of wiggle bags
Author with daughter at sewing machine

Lesley is from just outside Edinburgh in Scotland. Once upon a time she was a senior consultant in international development but nowadays is a full-time cancer mum who is met everywhere she goes by people asking how her daughter is with an obligatory head tilt. Lesley has been sewing for 7 years and likes to watch horror movies while she sews. She is also one half of @sew_scottish and likes to organise meet ups for fellow sewing enthusiasts in Scotland.