ERIE, Pa. — Hope Smith of Millcreek Township attended an art therapy class for cancer patients not long after doctors diagnosed her with a recurrence of breast cancer, which had spread to her sternum, ribs and lymph nodes.
She thought the class might help her cope with the diagnosis. Instead, she found herself among several people who had lost hope, who seemed to be counting down the days they had left.
Smith, 54, understood, but she couldn't surround herself with such negativity, especially in a class meant to be therapeutic.
"It was really depressing," she said. "... I couldn't go back. I'm a positive person. I can't be around negativity."
Unable to work full-time anymore, Smith started working on art projects at home, restoring old furniture and making signs. Her boyfriend Brad Swogger pitched in, fixing broken dressers, tables and other items so Smith could apply her artistic flair. She spends most days inside her garage with sandpaper and paint brush, warding off bouts of fatigue and keeping her mind focused on anything but her cancer.
Smith needed an outlet, something positive. She needed to feel the value that work instills.
She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, while working as an office assistant at a local imaging center. She went through chemotherapy and radiation. Her cancer was in remission until about three years ago. That's when she discovered an untapped talent.
Smith's creations caught on. Friends and family members quickly saw how she could transform an old and ugly dresser destined for the trash truck into something resembling the pages of a Pottery Barn magazine.
People began dropping off furniture at her house without notifying her.
"I was like, 'where did this come from? Are you kidding me?' " said the mother of three adult children.
She got more and more requests. Sometimes, they were from people who wanted work done for themselves. Other times, they just dropped off pieces for her to remake and resell. Smith collects items herself, too, occasionally scouring secondhand stores and the local Goodwill.
She began posting her work to Facebook last year under the name "Haugenswogger Collectibles," a blend of her maiden name, Haugsdahl, and her boyfriend's last name, Swogger.
She had made so many things she needed to clear space. She sells the items at reasonable prices, considering the cost for materials and supplies and the time she invests. People have encouraged her to display her work at craft fairs or to go into business full-time.
That's not part of her plans. "I'm not making a whole lot of money, but I'm going to buy my grandkids Christmas presents," she said. "I'm doing it because it keeps me busy. If I were sitting here all day, doing nothing, I'd be really depressed."
In recent weeks she's turned her attention to sign-making. She paints wood planks and letters them to say "Welcome," ''Farmhouse," or "Gather family and friends." She also works on seasonal and holiday home decor. Her garage is currently a mix of orange signs and wooden pumpkins for Halloween and red signs for Christmas.
As for her cancer, "Luckily it's staying at bay," said Smith, who takes a chemotherapy pill every day and receives regular injections to keep her bones strong. "It might be bigger now, but at least it's not spreading all over the place."
She realizes others aren't as fortunate.
"Some people can't just get up and do stuff," she said. "But find something you can do, get your mind going. It makes you forget about stuff. This is my therapy, 'Oh, what can I make next?' "
Mary Hoderny, 63, of Millcreek Township found more than just handcrafted pumpkins when she drove past Smith's home one day. She found a friend. Hoderny saw the pumpkins sitting out near the edge of the road with a for-sale sign and turned her car around.
"She's just got that personality," said Hoderny, who now spends time in Smith's garage to keep her company as she works. "We became instant friends. It's her enthusiasm and her talent and friendliness."
Hoderny marvels at how Smith approaches life in the face of cancer.
"I pray for her a lot," she said. "I'm amazed at her attitude and her positiveness. It's refreshing, very refreshing."