The Beauty of Giving Back: The story of Ruby Seeto’s muchcoveted tea towels
After more than a decade of being cancer-free, Ruby Seeto has raised thousands of dollars for the hospital which helped save her life – one tea towel at a time
S itting in her hospital bed as a nine-year-old cancer patient, Ruby Seeto remembers being in a lot of pain, but what helped her stay positive was her love of drawing. Twelve years on and now a student at Wellington’s Victoria University, Ruby’s creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and desire to give back to the people who helped her beat cancer has meant she’s raised an impressive $500,000 for the Starship Foundation. Not bad for a 21-year-old. Her partnership with linen company Wallace Cotton since 2009 means she produces a new limited-edition tea towel every year – with a total of 83,000 tea towels sold – and she’s showing no signs of slowing down.
After all, Auckland-born Ruby figures everyone needs a tea towel. “People are really supportive; they’re always saying, ‘good on you’. It’s so rewarding to see everyone always embracing a new design every year. I love seeing them on their little stand and it’s funny to go in store; the ladies always recognise me and say hello. I love seeing people buy them, it’s the best thing.”
After a tumour was found in her liver in 2006, she spent 12 months in Starship undergoing intensive treatment which involved a seven-hour operation to remove a large tumour, along with 70% of her liver, and 14 rounds of chemotherapy. “I had a week of chemotherapy and then a week at home but because my immune system was so low, I’d often get sick again so I’d have to go back into hospital anyway. It wasn’t pleasant. My parents were really worried at the time; they didn’t know what would happen and there was a lot of unknown.
“I remember feeling tired and sick all of the time and couldn’t go to school that year, so I missed my friends and all of the cool things you get to do in Year 6. I never thought anything was that serious, because everyone around me was so positive.”
The first tea towel she drew and produced at age 10 was to fundraise for children’s charity, Koru Care. The charity takes terminally ill kids to Disneyland and invited Ruby to go on a trip when she’d finished her chemotherapy treatment. Ruby’s mum got her drawing printed onto a tea towel at the local screen printer for Koru Care, and then she designed another one for Starship. The next year Wallace Cotton co-founders Paula and Bill Wallace
‘I HAVE A MORE POSITIVE OUTLOOK ON LIFE’
approached Starship looking to give back to the charity, and Ruby was already designing and selling tea towels to family and friends at the time. Starship organised a meeting with Paula, Bill, Ruby and her mum, and ever since Wallace Cotton has been on board to produce and sell the 100% cotton tea towels in store. Together they’ve created 10 designs, featuring some of Ruby’s favourite recipes. This year’s design is one of her favourites, the ‘Ruby Red Salad’, with $6 from every sale – all proceeds after costs – going to the Starship Foundation.
LEAVING A LEGACY
Funds raised through Ruby’s tea towels have supported multiple projects in Starship, including rebuilding the Oncology ward, buying a baby simulator to train neonatal nurses, and supporting an international training fellowship for a Specialist Starship Oncologist. Most recently all funds raised went towards setting up an ovarian tissue cryopreservation banking protocol for New Zealand Haematology-Oncology Services – the only means of preserving fertility for pre-pubescent girls who are at high risk of infertility because of cancer treatment.
Funds from the new ‘Ruby Red Salad’ tea towel design are set to help with the refurbishment of Starship’s Phlebotomy laboratory, where around 600 children each month have blood samples taken. It’s a cause very close to Ruby’s heart. “I had hundreds of blood tests at that lab while I was in hospital over the past 10 years. It’s underequipped and not a very nice experience for patients so refurbishment of the area is definitely much needed.”
The university student credits her parents for encouraging her to give back. Her dad has always been involved with Rotary International, while her mum has been a part of the Parent-Teacher Association and Parents and Friends. She was also in the Friends of Starship fundraising committee long before Ruby was diagnosed with cancer. “I just think it’s important to give back to the people who have given things to you,” she says.
Ruby’s best friends describe her as compassionate, kind and hardworking. That hard work has meant that as well as having 12 tea towels under her belt, unstoppable Ruby has finished an undergraduate commerce degree and is currently completing an honours degree in marketing. She’s also enjoying working as an intern at chocolate company Whittaker’s.
Although her cancer ordeal was a tough time for Ruby and her family, she wouldn’t change what happened. If she hadn’t been in hospital, she most likely wouldn’t have designed the tea towels and raised half a million dollars for Starship.
“I’m glad it happened because it means I’ve been able to give back to the community in a way that benefits so many other people,” she explains. “It makes me appreciate all of the charities that support sick children in hospital, as well as the dedicated staff and nurses who work so hard at the hospital. I have a more positive outlook on life now seeing as at the time people weren’t sure if I was going to live or not.”
Alongside tea towels, Ruby’s designs have been printed on Wallace Cotton aprons and wash cloth sets. She thinks it would be cool to branch out to even more products – and her creative flair, combined with a passion for all things marketing and branding-related, might just see that happen.
‘I just think it’s important to give back to the people who have given things to you’
Ruby with (from left) Anna Rennie from the Starship Foundation, Bill Wallace and Meredith Crawford from Wallace Cotton, and Ruby’s mum Sharon celebrate raising $500,000 for the children’s hospital.