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LuAnn Kessi
LuAnn Kessi, right, shows off a recent creation to fellow instructor Virginia Gregory during their 'Permission to Play' class at JanniLou Creations Quilt Shop in Philomath. (Andy Cripe/Gazette-Times)

About an hour into her first “Permission to Play” class, Caroline Lupoli was laughing heartily — and eerily in sync with — her “new best friend,” instructor Cindy McNutt-Kaestner.

“We’re not gonna let her go,” McNutt-Kaestner said.

Lupoli, who lives in Sweet Home, seemed nothing like a newcomer to the class. But when everyone around the table has been touched by cancer, maybe that’s not a surprise.

About two years ago, LuAnn Kessi started a group called Living Well with Cancer and Healing Through Quilting. The Harlan resident has three aunts who are cancer survivors, and all had been making things to sell to raise money for cancer research. But she felt moved to do more.

“You knew that you were doing something good, but we just wanted to help in a more personal way,” she said. She decided to start a quilting class for those who have cancer.

Lou Shafer, who owns Philomath’s JanniLou Creations quilt shop with her sister, Jan Bressler, had long wanted Kessi to teach classes there and happily donated the space.

“We were thrilled to have them here,” Shafer said. “The energy is really positive.”

Kessi easily persuaded fellow quilters to be instructors. “We couldn’t pass it up,” said Kathi Borrego, a Harlan neighbor of Kessi.

Soon the class was in full swing and an obvious hit. The group now goes by the name “Permission 2 Play,” because, Kessi said, so many students remarked that it was the one day marked on their calendar when they gave themselves “permission to play.”

Kathy Haywood of Corvallis has been in the class since the beginning. Last week was her two-year anniversary of surgery for metastatic, invasive breast cancer. It’s officially five years of being cancer-free before she can call herself a survivor, so she has dubbed herself a “pre-vivor.”

The group has “absolutely” helped her recovery, she said, thanks to “the enthusiasm and just the camaraderie.”

But for the most part, cancer and everything related to it doesn’t come up during class.

“We just don’t talk about it,” she said. “We play and we have fun.”

Class projects, which include needlefelting, fabric printing and other textile arts, are displayed in the radiation and chemotherapy rooms at The Corvallis Clinic and Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. Doctors and nurses have told Kessi the quilts have helped turned a sterile environment comfortable and homey.

So far, the class has produced more than 100 quilts.

In January, the group’s quilts were displayed at LaSells Stewart Center during Lunafest. They also have been displayed at Footwise.

But exhibitions aren’t what it’s all about.

“Most of the time, we’re just in love with whatever we’re teaching,” said instructor Nancy Bryant.

That spills over to the students. Customers in the front of the store hear them laughing, Bryant said, and want to see what all the fun is about.

“We do have a great deal of fun here,” said instructor Virginia Gregory.

Member Martha Baltram said the class is a way to forget all the stresses.

“You just come and relax and have fun and laugh, laugh, laugh.”

There have been sad times. Last summer, the group lost a member, Pam Walker.

“You have to be strong in the face of it,” Kessi said. “You have to come here with a smile on your face every month.”

Students finished some of Walker’s projects, which, as Walker had wanted, went on display.

The class encourages students with no quilting experience. Trying something new has not been a problem for anyone.

“I find that the students in this class are just absolutely fearless,” Kessi said. “They are not afraid to try anything. They have faced life’s greatest fear. What’s left to be afraid of?”

For Barbara Van de Wetering of Corvallis, the class opened her eyes to different techniques. “I’m a quilter, but I’ve always just done traditional things,” she said.

Lupoli was a true beginner.

“I’ve never had an art class of any kind before,” she said. She had seen the group’s projects in the radiation room when she got treatment, but “I never thought I would be doing it.”

Kessi wants to reach more people.

“We are hoping to recruit more,” she said. “There are just so many deserving people who should come.”

She’s even willing to help start chapters in other towns.

“It would be great if every town offered something like this,” she said.

It’s a typically energetic statement from Kessi, who regularly features students’ work, and her own, on her blog.

“LuAnn does not sleep,” Shafer said. “Absolutely everything she sees sends her mind racing to a quilting project. She’s just remarkable.”

During last week’s class, Lupoli had to leave early. She got a hug from McNutt-Kaestner and Kessi before leaving.

And would she be back?

“Oh, yes.”

For more information on the class, contact Kessi at

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