Barbara Hensley, founder of Hope Chest for Breast Cancer. Photo by Sarah Whiting.
Barbara Hensley, founder of Hope Chest for Breast Cancer. Photo by Sarah Whiting.
Buying those designer jeans and that leather couch never felt as good as it does at the new Hope Chest store in St. Paul. Well, almost never. That's because the upscale second-hand store donates a percentage from every purchase to organizations that help fight breast cancer.

The 6,000-square-foot store, located on Snelling Avenue, is the second for owner Barbara Hensley. She opened the first in Orono/Navarre in 2002 and Hope Chest has since raised more than $500,000 for breast cancer from store sales and fund-raising events.

Opening Hope Chest has been a great lesson in humanity, Hensley said. Shoppers often ask what they can do to help, she said. "I think if you can just provide an avenue to help breast cancer, [volunteers] will come," Hensley said. "Even just telling your friends to shop helps."

The Hope Chest store sells donated merchandise, both new and slightly used, including designer furniture, home furnishings and clothing for about a third of the original retail price. Hope Chest for Breast Cancer Foundation disperses a percentage of those sales to local agencies that provide care for breast cancer patients, early detection programs and research, including the University of Minnesota Breast Center, Angel Foundation and the Women's Cancer Resource Center.

Spreading hope

Hensley's ultimate goal is to help eliminate breast cancer. Right now she is concentrating on finding franchisees to open stores nationwide. She hopes a chain of Hope Chest stores will one day raise as much as $10 million a year for breast cancer.

"With all that money, just think of the difference we could make," Hensley said, her eyes shining.

Hensley, 58, lost both of her sisters to breast cancer and has had a preventative bilateral mastectomy. She left her position as vice president of product management at Ceridian to help those affected by breast cancer. In 2001 she started the Hope Chest for Breast Cancer. So far, she says, the business has been going in the right direction, and the store has attracted sponsors and built community awareness around breast cancer.

The Hope Chest has also hosted several special events, including radio talk shows and support groups to educate immigrant women about the importance of early detection. Hensley hopes to do more language and culture-appropriate events.

"That way, it's not me or a Caucasian nurse just standing up talking. It's a Latino or Hmong woman talking to her peers," Hensley said.

Although she doesn't get the chance to meet many of the people the Hope Chest helps, she has heard stories about them. In one case, a woman was able to keep her children at home because the money raised by Hope Chest paid her utility bills; another woman kept her house because money donated by the foundation paid her rent.

"The real drive of the Hope Chest are the people; the families," Hensley said. "It's all about the people affected by breast cancer that can't afford to live otherwise."