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

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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


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.


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.

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