updated 07/17/2014 AT 8:45 AM ET
•originally published 07/17/2014 AT 1:45 PM ET
When Brenda Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, she used her experience to create what she calls her “Vera Wang moment.”
It all started when she went for her first day of radiation in January 2009.
The technician “just pointed to the dressing room and said, ‘Go on in there, and put on a hospital gown. You’re going to wear them for the next seven weeks,’ ” Jones, 56, tells PEOPLE.
“I opened that door and literally when I saw those stacks of those hospital gowns, that’s when I lost it,” she says. “I just stood there crying. In my head I’m screaming, ‘I’m not wearing those things!’ ”
At the same time, an idea popped into her head of what she would like to wear.
“I knew exactly what I was going to make,” says Jones, a former veterinary technician who had never sewn a day in her life.
That one moment led to her creating Hug Wraps, a nonprofit that has made more than 1,000 kimono-style gowns in a variety of patterns, colors and designs to women with all sorts of illnesses. A friend helped her learn how to sew.
The old gowns “take away patients’ dignity, respect, comfort, it strips them of everything,” says Jones, of Southampton, New Jersey. “But when you put on a Hug Wrap, you put on a smile.”
Jones says the 501(c)(3) nonprofit relies heavily on monetary donations to create the wraps. Many of her customers are people buying the wraps for their family members or friends. She then tries to match the design of the gown as closely as possible to the patient’s interests and needs.
Mary Carty got a Hug Wrap from Jones’s niece, Althea McIlwee, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2012.
“It was a cold, cold rainy night and it was like 9 o’clock at night and she said, ‘I have something to bring you, I know it will cheer you up,’ ” says Carty, 62, of Mount Holly, New Jersey.
Carty says her husband Richard and their two sons were supportive but having the Hug Wrap was the female connection she needed during her battle with breast cancer.
“It gave me a positive feeling, like somebody cared,” Carty says. “It really made me feel connected to a bunch of people, like we’re all going through this same thing. It was a hug; it was literally a hug!”
Jones also includes a personal note with every Hug Wrap she makes.
“[Brenda] said that this was her hug that she wanted to give to me so when I went to my treatments and stuff I won’t feel alone,” Carty says, crying.
“You know, I just couldn’t stop crying and every time I try to read that note, I cry,” she says. “It’s something special and Brenda has brought a lot of peace to a lot of people. I’ve always said if I won the lottery, she’s the first on the list.”
Carty officially became cancer free on March 12, 2013, but she says she still sports her Hug Wrap.
“It was just nice to have that item, and I still have it,” she says. “I think I’ll frame it. I’ll never get rid of it.”
Jones has donated Hug Wraps to Nazareth Hospital in Philadelphia, greatly impacting the cancer community, according to radiation therapist Candy McLaughlin.
“It’s absolutely amazing and profound what this simple, little piece of fabric does for the patient when they have to come in for treatment every day,” she says. “It presents a positive feeling to the patient that this is something the hospital is offering them but I really make an effort for them to understand that this is coming from Brenda.”
Jones said her ultimate goal, besides appearing on Ellen DeGeneres’s show, is for any patient that is handed a diagnosis of cancer to be handed a Hug Wrap.
“For me to have gotten that angry when I did is not like me,” says Jones, who is now cancer free. “But, really looking back, if I hadn’t gotten that angry I wouldn’t have been pushed to change those hospital gowns.”
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