Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
For Kelsey Nishi Darling and Michael Darling, newlywed life began innocuously. The couple had met at a party in 2005 and began dating shortly after. Ten years later, the Darlings tied the knot and lived what Kelsey called an unremarkable life – both had jobs they loved – Michael was working for Nissan and Kelsey as a small-business owner of Hawaii Calligraphy, transforming letters into custom designs for others’ memorable moments. The young 30-somethings enjoyed spending time with their two dogs and three cats, just being together, relishing the simplicity of idle time. But one day in December 2015, just months after their nuptials, Michael was in so much pain, Kelsey urged him to go to the emergency room. An X-Ray revealed a 12-centimeter mass in his chest. “It was both kind of a blur of all these things happening,” recalls Kelsey. “But also slow and unbelievable.” The Darlings found out Michael had cancer of the thymus. The doctor’s prognosis was poor; it was stage four. Suddenly, there was a big shift, where life for the newlyweds was much more than remarkable.
Michael went through chemotherapy locally then flew to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas to have the tumor in his chest removed and discovered the cancer had spread to the bones. Michael endured more rounds of chemo, radiation and targeted therapies. He has been in and out of the hospital to manage pain. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic with all its healthcare obstacles and restrictions. The cancer journey, for both the patient and caregiver, can be an isolating and dark expedition, but the Darlings, instead, chose to find community and light. And also, lemonade.
At the end of 2020, when the end of the first year of the pandemic was looming, when many were isolating in their homes, when time was standing still yet barreling toward an unknown future, the Darlings, who had been riding that wave of uncertainty for five years, understood people needed a token of hope, something to bring a smile or as Kelsey calls it, “stuff for when times are rough.”
Kelsey began creating calligraphed mantras like “going to be okay,” “you got this” and “trying my best,” on keychains and ornaments and posted them on her business webshop. Soon, she realized she wanted to share these inspirational tokens with the cancer center that was saving Michael’s life.
“I always knew it had to be lemonade,” says Kelsey. “Because that’s what you do, right?” The proverb “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” inspires optimism in the face of adversity, to focus on good – and that’s what the Darlings did, and that’s how in the midst of a global pandemic, when their personal microcosm had already been shaken, the Make Lemonade Project was born.
Kelsey constructed a little lemonade stand to arrange gifts for cancer center caregivers and patients, but struggled to get the wording right. “I wrote ‘make lemonade’ or ‘lemonade stand’ or ‘free lemonade’ a hundred million times,” shares Kelsey. “Calligraphy is my job, but it was just so important to me. I couldn’t do it – it wasn’t perfect enough.” Her friend and fellow artist Jordan Higa quickly sketched out “free lemonade,” and Higa’s rendering was exactly as Kelsey envisioned. She posted a picture of the completed lemonade stand on Instagram with the caption, “this project is my greatest accomplishment,” her heart full, imagining bringing gifts to the cancer center when she could, hoping the act of unsolicited kindness would bring a little sweetness during sour times.
And that’s when the messages began pouring in. Friends and business owners reached out, people who had been affected by cancer and wanting to share, wanting to give. Jana Lam, Fighting Eel, Short Stack Hawai‘i, Owens and Co., Solbeam Studio, Ben Franklin Crafts, Twiggy Hawaii, Braveri Handmade, Paradise Monarchs, Love Mirei Hawaii and so many more companies contacted Kelsey, eager to donate their wares to cancer care providers and patients fighting for their lives.
The Darling’s passion project quickly gathered steam. A Board of Directors was created, an application to qualify as a nonprofit organization filed, its own Make Lemonade Project website set up (makelemonadeproject.org). Free lemonade stands were given a home in June 2021 at the Queen’s Cancer Center and expanded to five stands at adult and pediatric centers across O‘ahu in less than a year. The project created a special kid-centric wish list for keiki and teens in the Kapi‘olani Medical Center’s pediatric oncology center, and the community responded with a truckload of fulfilled orders. Kelsey and volunteers refill the adult stands on a regular basis, stands stocked full of neatly packaged gifts like crocheted lemon stress balls, original artwork, water bottles, t-shirts, stickers, handmade macrame plant holders, ceramic pots, wish bracelets, notebooks, cards, crystals, face masks, pens and pins, bags and pouches, heartfelt donations the community shares.
“Till this day, we have never said, ‘hey, can you donate ‘lemonade’?” Kelsey says of the Lemon Squeezers, supporters who create and donate gifts. “Lemonade just organically manifests itself at my front door.”
The project spread its reach even further with its Lemon-AID grant program, which was created to help ease the financial stress of high-cost cancer treatment. Many items from the free lemonade stands are sold on the project’s website in its lemonade shop tab, a curated collection of gifts for anyone, not just those battling cancer. Money is also raised through crowdfunding and fundraising. Friends in the community have volunteered to host fundraisers at their small businesses, through online auctions or limited-time “buy-it-now” products, typically raising thousands of dollars per fundraiser. All of the proceeds from the webshop and fundraisers go towards project operations or Lemon-AID.
“People reach out and say ‘my family member went through cancer’ or ‘I lost my friend and want to find peace by giving back,’” says Kelsey. “That’s what this community is really about – that giving a gift feels as good as receiving a gift. Anytime you can say you’re passing love like this around, it’s just so fulfilling. I’m so grateful to be an extension cord to connect people together.”
Lemon-AID works by connecting with social workers to help identify patients in need of immediate help. If they have funds, they’ll release the money within 24 hours, so patients don’t have to wait. The Lemon-AID program has no open period for applying and funds are granted on a first-come, first-served basis.
“The average cancer patient suffers a $150,000 out-of-pocket burden,” explains Kelsey. “Oftentimes you can’t work because you’re too sick from treatment and not everyone has things like [Temporary Disability Insurance] and [Family and Medical Leave Act]. Some people don’t have a lot of family they can rely on and end up having to move into their car to pay for treatment. I can’t imagine fighting for your life and having to worry about food on the table and the roof over your head — that’s what we are trying to alleviate people from, which is a term called financial toxicity.”
The biggest way to help is by making a donation. “Even if it’s $5 a week, it’ll make a huge difference,” says Kelsey. Lemon Squeezers can even check the website’s donation page to see if their company will match their contribution. Additionally, through the month of September, Foodland’s Give Aloha program will double individual donations up to $249 with the Make Lemonade Project code 79097 at any Foodland, Foodland Farms or Sack N Save locations.
In June 2021, Make Lemonade Project officially received its 501(c)(3) non-profit status and in just 12 months, the Lemon-AID program has shared $68,750 to 12 people fighting cancer.
Despite its success, Kelsey’s ultimate wish is that the Make Lemonade Project would no longer be necessary, because cancer is curable or no longer exists.
In the meantime, the Darlings continue to make lemonade when times are rough. Michael has taken up metal model building, filling a room full of intricate miniatures he’s assembled. Kelsey is content to see him keeping busy, especially working on the couch, hunched over a project with his bug-eyed magnifying glasses. “As the disease progresses, things we do have changed accordingly,” says Kelsey. “It makes me so happy that he finds ways to stay busy, finds the courage to keep going and keep fighting, keep doing treatment, against all odds.”
While the cancer has slowly advanced, the Darlings’ commitment to each other hasn’t wavered. Like their newlywed days, the couple enjoys spending time with friends, their pets and with each other, even if time has a different meaning.
Time, says Kelsey, is something to be cherished, coveted. “Suddenly, the dishes in the sink are just not that important. You learn to appreciate every moment because there are days where making lemonade doesn’t feel possible. But what I do know is the sun is going to come up, and we just try to focus on that day and not worry about what may or may not happen. Mike may have a poor prognosis, but hope is always a hundred percent.”
To donate to the Make Lemonade Project, please visit makelemonadeproject.org. For up-to-date information, follow Instagram accounts @makelemonadeproject and @lemonadefundraisers.