Tim Woodward

Boise woman ‘needed a life,’ and found one helping people cope with death

Jacki Kelsch was looking for something to do with her life.

Nothing unusual about that. We’re all looking for something to do with our lives at one time or another.

Her wish, however, was fulfilled to an extent she couldn’t have imagined.

Kelsch wasn’t looking for something to do out of some vague sense of finding herself, or because she was desperate for a job. Her search was the result of an incapacitating accident.

Two accidents, actually. In the winter of 2008, she slipped on some ice and injured her knee. Four months later, with the knee still weakened from the first accident, she fell again. The force of the fall caused a titanium plate previously implanted in her neck to sever the roots of the nerves that controlled her hands.

“With my neck and my knee injured, my lower back went out. I had six back surgeries. I was in and out of surgery for four years,” she said.

To paraphrase Albert King, if not for bad luck she didn’t have no luck at all. Her injuries forced her to quit her job of seven years, working in patient registration at a psychiatric hospital.

“I couldn’t pick up a pencil or answer the phone,” she said. “My hands would freeze. I worked as long as I could, but had to quit. I used to teach art classes, and I had to give that up, too.”

Anyone who has done it knows that sitting around the house recuperating gets old quickly.

“I was living on the couch. I didn’t want to sit around and watch TV all day. I needed a life,” she said. “I gave it a lot of thought and decided I’d try to help people in hospice care.”

Handy Hands

Kelsch, 57, had always been good with her hands. She enjoyed working with paper – making cards, posters, wall art. She decided to use those talents to make scrapbooks for dying people and their loved ones.

“I wanted to make them for them while they were still alive so they’d know it was their memories people would remember and not someone else’s memories of them. A lot of people who are dying are angry or in denial. When they get out pictures for a scrapbook, they start talking about their trips and other memories. It helps put their minds at ease. They’re dying, but they realize they’ve had a good life.”

One of her early projects was making a scrapbook for her mother, who, although she didn’t know it at the time, was dying of cancer.

“She loved it,” Kelsch said. “She looked at it every day. … When I told her I was making scrapbooks for people on hospice, she touched my hand and said, ‘Jacki, every job you’ve had in your life has prepared you for this. You’re very handy with your hands.’”

That was the beginning of Handy Hands, which to date has made more than 1,150 scrapbooks for people nearing the end of life or families who have experienced loss.

The scrapbooks are personalized, based on the recipients’ interests and preferences. Kelsch and Handy Hands volunteers choose pages and embellishments based on the recipients’ interests – sports, camping, fishing, cooking, etc. The recipients add their own photos and other personal touches.

Andrea Tully, of Meridian, lost her teenage son, Clay, in an automobile accident in 2016. His scrapbook reflects his love of fishing and hunting.

“It was as thoughtful as anything could have been from somebody who didn’t even know him,” Tully said. “The pages they made were just exactly who he was. It’s been wonderful to have all those things about him in one place where people who didn’t know him can look at it and see who he was.”

One of the more unusual scrapbooks was for a man who was angry because he was dying of a terminal illness at 38.

“He was in denial,” Kelsch said. “He’d tell people, ‘I’m not dying - shut up!’ When we put the scrapbook in front of him, you could see him lighten up. He wanted it all Goth, all in black with skulls and crossbones and chains.

“… He loved it. He asked me to go get a picture of him that he thought would be perfect for one of the pages. He opened up. He started talking to his family again. The scrapbook took away a lot of his anger.”

Reaching out

Kelsch made 20 scrapbooks the first year. For five years, she paid for most of the materials and other expenses herself. As word got out and demand for the scrapbooks increased, volunteers and donors got involved. Handy Hands is now a nonprofit charity with some 30 regular volunteers, financial support from individuals and companies, and semiannual fundraising events. It’s made scrapbooks for people in 32 states, Canada and Mexico.

For the families of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims in Connecticut in 2012, it made 26 scrapbooks in two and a half weeks.

“We were busy bees,” Meridian volunteer Candy Cardillo said. “… We’ve done a lot of books for children. That act of kindness at a time when people are at their most vulnerable is so meaningful to them. For me to be a small part of that is humbling and an honor.”

The Sandy Hook families, Kelsch said, “got so many things donated at once they were just throwing things in their garages. An uncle of one of the kids was sorting through it all, and when he ran across our scrapbook, he called the kid’s mother and said, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve got to see this.’ She called us right away and told us it was the best gift they’d received. Then she called all the other families and told them to be watching for their scrapbooks.”

In addition to Sandy Hook, Handy Hands has made scrapbooks for families of victims of the Dallas Police Department and Umpqua Community College shootings, and is making them for those of the Parkland, Fla., shooting and the Boise refugee stabbings.

Many of the scrapbooks, sadly, are for children.

“The kids in one of the families take the scrapbook to school with them,” Kelsch said. “At bedtime, they fight over who’s going to sleep with daddy.”

In May, Kelsch and her husband, Steve, lost their son in a work-related accident. Jake Kelsch was the father of a 2-year-old daughter.

“It’s too painful for me to make that scrapbook. One of the volunteers is working on one now for Lyla, so she’ll know her daddy,” Kelsch said.

Three weeks prior to Jake’s death, Handy Hands lost its work space after its owner was offered more rent by someone else. Kelsch and her volunteers have spent the summer working at her home, which has been inconvenient at best.

One of my original reasons for writing this was a hope that publishing her story would help her find an affordable space. That’s since happened. Handy Hands will soon be moving to space at Jones Sew and Vac on Fairview Avenue.

But this is still a story worth sharing and embracing. Jacki Kelsch did what she set out to do. She found a life, and helped hundreds of grieving people get on with theirs. Maybe, in the end, her luck wasn’t all bad.

Tim Woodward’s column runs monthly. Know someone with an interesting story for him? Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

Handy Hands

The organization has a continuing need for volunteers and financial support. For information on volunteering or donating, email handyhandsjacki@gmail.com.