SEPTEMBER 20, 2018, MARBLEHEAD – Leah Goldenberg was primed and ready to move into her dorm at Simmons College when she realized she just couldn’t do it. That summer, she had been diagnosed with a stomach condition that was leaving her in a lot of pain, but she still assumed she would leave for college like the rest of her friends.
“I kept thinking, ‘Oh it’s OK, I’ll be fine to go to school,’” said Goldenberg. “And then it got to the day when I was supposed to move in and I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I’m so sick.’”
Reluctantly, Goldenberg took a leave of absence for a semester, which eventually turned into the whole year, and continued going to doctors to try to figure out what was going on. She was in too much pain to do much of anything, so she lay on the couch and scrolled through social media, watching her friends enjoying their new lives at college.
“I was so lonely, I was in so much pain, and I was home like 24/7 watching like three movies a day,” said Goldenberg. “[I was] watching on social media all my friends going to school, making new friends, living their lives that I was supposed to be living.”
After a while, Goldenberg decided to give up one form of social media in favor of another. After some googling, she came upon Sick Chicks, a Facebook group for women and girls with illnesses and disabilities. Immediately, she found a supportive, caring community that understood what she was going through in a way that her well-meaning friends and family could not.
“It was great to ask people questions and to talk or to vent or anything,” said Goldenberg. Not only did the group give her a forum to vent her own anxieties and frustrations, it also helped give her perspective as she heard from people in even more difficult situations than hers.
After hearing one heartbreaking story after another, Goldenberg decided to help. It essentially happened by accident; with not a lot to do, a restless and fidgety Goldenberg started stitching together bracelets, a skill she’d learned at camp at Children’s Island in Marblehead. The bracelets started to pile up, and none of her friends and family wanted them, so she figured that perhaps some of the people from Sick Chicks might be interested. They were, and people started asking her how much they cost.
“They cost a dollar to make and, I don’t know, 40 cents to ship … I said, ‘Don’t pay me, that’s ridiculous,’” said Goldenberg, who started shipping her bracelets all over the country.
Out of this, Goldenberg’s charity, Chronic Love – which ships customized bracelets along with handwritten notes to people with illnesses – was born. Each bracelet is adorned with patterns of hearts, which for Goldenberg represent both the emotion of illness and a reminder to continue loving yourself. Most illnesses have a specific color that represents solidarity and awareness. She also attaches a handwritten note wishing the recipient well.
The response has been overwhelming. Goldenberg has made over 350 bracelets, and has a waitlist of about 60 people, though she’s still taking requests. She’s sent bracelets all over the world, and often receives thank-you notes and donations in return.
“People tend to get the bracelet on the perfect day, which I find very strange,” said Goldenberg. “They’ll be coming right out of the hospital, or going right into the hospital and get the bracelet, or they got really bad news about their illness and they got the bracelet right before or right after getting really bad news. People say it makes them happier.”
Goldenberg, now 20, has since gotten well enough to attend college, and recently began her second year at Simmons, where she’s studying social work. This fall, she will be interning at Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s adoption agency.
Goldenberg’s compassion runs in the family. Her mother Diane is a special educator, and her maternal grandmother taught in Lynn schools. According to her mother, her compassionate nature also was influenced by the example set by her family and her Jewish upbringing.
“She comes from a home where she knows that all the women volunteer,” said Diane Goldenberg, “and she believes in Judaism, in tikkun olam … she really takes her place in the world seriously.”
Though she is busy, Goldenberg intends to keep up Chronic Love for as long as possible. “As long as I have the funds to do it, and the time – not even the time, not even like half the time, but I do it anyway without the time – because they matter,” she said. “I will do it as long as it keeps people smiling and fighting.”