10/22/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
Flight attendant Mel Simmons was a giver: If an elderly passenger had lost her purse, Simmons would take up a midair collection to help her out; when a Wal-Mart cashier had to work on her birthday, Simmons bought her a seafood dinner. And when friend Kathy Holden brought her two dozen beaded bracelets from Turkey in January 2005, she did what came naturally—passed them out to patients and staff at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, where she was being treated for breast cancer. "She gave away everything she had," says fellow flight attendant Pauline Alighieri.
Simmons lost her battle with the illness. She died at age 57 on July 18, 2005, at her home in Rockland, Mass., leaving behind two grown children, Mark, 33, and Jessica, 29. But her friends never forgot her generosity. Many continued to request the bracelets after she died. So Alighieri and Holden, her coworkers from Delta Air Lines, thought, Why not pick up more, sell them in Simmons' honor and raise money for cancer research? They flew to Istanbul later that month and bought 1,000 bracelets. "We figured we'd raise $5,000," says Alighieri.
Call it karma. Friends of Mel, the nonprofit Alighieri and Holden founded, sold those bracelets within a month. (Although the original bracelets contained lead, the mistake has been corrected and new ones are lead free.) Today more than 250 volunteers help sell the bracelets through the Internet, hair salons, bakeries and other stores. The group has raised $2.5 million for research and equipment. "Mel was all about love, and that's what these bracelets are," says her sister Bernadette Ippolito. "They connect everyone."
For more info go to melsbracelets.org