Emma Dillon wrapped and twisted the 24-inch length of blue-and-white striped ribbon into a bow.
She tied it with a smaller piece of ribbon in the center, attached a clip in the middle and used a hot glue gun to hold it all together.
The whole process took about a minute, honed after doing nearly 1,000 of them.
Emma has raised more than $3,000 for Relay for Life by selling handmade hair bows in a rainbow of colors. The Franklin 12-year-old has spent the past six months selling her bows online, in local schools and at community events.
Motivated by a special teacher who was diagnosed with stomach cancer, Emma hopes her efforts not only provide funding for cancer research but inspire other kids to get involved as well.
“Sometimes, when I don’t feel like making them, I just have to think about all of the people who are struggling right now with cancer, that they’re getting helped with every bow I make,” she said.
Emma, a sixth-grader at Custer Baker Intermediate School, was born with a severe hearing impairment, requiring a special teacher to help her navigate her classes. Since she was 3, that teacher has been Jane Ellen Watkins.
The two have a close bond.
Emma remembers when she was 4, she came to school with her hair all messed up. It was picture day, and Watkins wanted her to have a nice picture, so she did the girl’s hair for her.
“I can tell her anything,” Emma said.
Watkins was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2013. She informed the parents of her students about the condition and that she might not be available as much due to the chemotherapy treatments.
But she didn’t want to upset her students, so Watkins kept it a secret.
Their relationship was easygoing enough that Emma had no problem teasing her teacher one day about her hair.
“Jane Ellen texted me saying, ‘Today Emma let her know she didn’t know what I was doing with my hair, but she didn’t like it,’” said Michelle Dillon, Emma’s mother. “Well, it was a wig, but Emma didn’t know that.”
For Watkins, it was a rare chance to smile while going through the ordeal.
“Emma has always been fashion-conscious. So it didn’t surprise me that she’d be the one to notice. But it didn’t bother me,” she said.
Still, at that point, Dillon had to tell her daughter about Watkins’ cancer. Emma broke down in tears.
When she finished crying and had some time to think about this, she determinedly told her mom that she was going to do something to raise money for cancer research to help her teacher.
“It’s awesome that she’d do all of this work for any nonprofit. Then when it’s directly related, it means it’s that much more special,” Watkins said.
Emma taught herself to make the bows. Her older sister makes and sells fashion bows herself. Emma took one of those, disassembled it and then mimicked the craftsmanship. After some practice, she was making stylish bows that she thought others would want.
“I figured it out by myself. After a while, I thought I could do it and make them good,” Emma said.
Emma can make a bow in about one minute. Setting up a glue gun, her ribbon, clips and other decorations, she goes through what she calls “90 Bow Days.”
Some of her biggest sellers have been school-themed versions in blue and white for Franklin and blue and orange for Whiteland. Versions in crimson and cream and gold and black cater to Indiana and Purdue fans.
Styles for younger girls have bright pastels and fluorescent colors, adorned with flowers and extra ribbon.
“I like zebra a lot, so we have a lot of zebra-striped ones. During the winter, the colors aren’t as bright. But when the weather switched over, we started using a lot more bright colors like blue and green,” she said.
Emma started a Facebook page where she posts photos of every bow she makes. People can order through it, as well as picking up the bows for sale at Imagination Station and Style Dance Academy in Franklin.
They’ve sold them at every school in Franklin, going in at lunchtime to show off the bows.
Dillon has covered the cost of ribbon to ensure all of the profits go toward Relay for Life. Emma estimates she’s sold more than 1,000 bows since October.
“She’s been through so much, having seven surgeries for her hearing, that she has such a different heart and maturity from that,” Dillon said.
She had been part of a Relay for Life team before, but this year, with the status of the team uncertain, she decided to form her own. Her team, Tiny People Big Hearts, is made up of about 20 family members and friends. Altogether, the team has raised $5,000 for Relay for Life.
Because she and many of the team members are kids, Emma chose to stand up for childhood cancers. Their T-shirts and team decorations will be gold, the color for the national awareness campaign for childhood cancer.
Her efforts are gaining attention throughout central Indiana. Emma was invited to attend and help raise money at the IUPUI Relay for Life on April 5 and 6. This fall, she’ll speak to the college’s sororities in advance of the 2015 event.
With the success of her first year doing this, she sees the bows as a sustainable fundraiser that she can continue year after year.
“I think it’s going to be all the time. After this Relay and we turn in all of the money, I’m just going to keep selling,” she said.