Ruby Seeto: Giving back

By Suzanne McFadden

Her tea towel designs have raised a quarter of a million dollars for Starship. Not bad for a 17-year-old. Suzanne McFadden meets Ruby Seeto, cancer survivor and one-of-a-kind teenage entrepreneur.

Her first tea towel design, in 2007, helped Koru Care. Since then, Ruby Seeto has put her talents to raising $250,000 for Starship. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Her first tea towel design, in 2007, helped Koru Care. Since then, Ruby Seeto has put her talents to raising $250,000 for Starship. Photo / Sarah Ivey

To the unversed, it looks like your run-of-the-mill homework desk; its blond wood surface tattooed by pencil lead pockmarks, likely made in frustration, and funny face doodles inked in boredom. A barrel of uneven pencils and multi-hued felt-tipped pens, accompanied by an orange chair.

Above it is a mosaic of carefree schoolgirl snapshots. So far, the normal station of a teenage girl.

But this is the desk where, once a year, Ruby Seeto draws in earnest. Her masterpieces are painstakingly planned, sketched and brought to life. Friends and family offer a critical eye on her illustrations.

Because every year, thousands of people wait to snap up her vibrant, innocent works of art; collectors' items every one. Then they hang them in their kitchens, and dry their dishes with them.

Ruby Seeto - survivor of a "unique" cancer that eight years ago claimed most of her liver - is one of our most successful tea towel artists, if there is such an artistic category.

And, at 17, she's a one-of-a-kind entrepreneurial benefactor. Her cotton canvases have earned a remarkable $250,000, which has gone towards helping rebuild wards at Starship children's hospital, buying critical equipment to save babies' lives, and paying for doctors' fellowships.

"Starship saved my life; that's what they do every day," Ruby drew along the hem of her sixth tea towel, the Tree of Life. She sees her endeavour as a way to pay back.

Think tea towels, and you conjure an image of the dull kitchen variety wiper-uppers, tangible checks and stripes reminders of chores to be done.

Ruby's designs are orange sunflowers, heart-shaped icecreams, a bold fruit rainbow, gingerbread "friends" holding hands. They're bright, fun, uplifting ... a stark contrast from the days that followed the crushing prognosis for Ruby back in September 2006.

Today, she is a pretty, softly spoken wisp of a girl. In Year 13 at Auckland girls' school St Cuthbert's College, she plays soccer and is directing Othello in the school's Shakespeare Soiree.

She was 9 when she complained to her mum, Sharon, of a pain in her side. The family had just returned from a holiday in Fiji, where Ruby's father, architect Ron Seeto, grew up.

"There was no bruise or anything, so I told her to toughen up and go to school," Sharon says.

Days later, a lump appeared by Ruby's ribs. By the end of that day, she was in Starship.

A CT scan revealed a 1.6kg growth on her liver was pushing into Ruby's chest, hindering her breathing.

"It took doctors and specialists a month to investigate and plan the best way to remove the tumour," Sharon says. During those four anxious weeks, Ruby "disintegrated".

"She was down to 20kg. We had to push her around in a wheelchair. She slept with us; she was in terrible pain."

Seven hours of surgery removed the tumour, as well as 70 per cent of Ruby's liver and her gallbladder. She was left with an impressive scar down the centre of her chest and under her rib cage that the family call her "shark bite".

It was another three weeks before the Seeto family received the test results: undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma of the liver - a cancer Ruby's oncologist, Ruellyn Cockcroft, described to the family as unique. It's a rare tumour, for which the prognosis is generally grim.

Ruby in 2007, following her chemotherapy treatments. Photo / Jane Ussher
Ruby in 2007, following her chemotherapy treatments. Photo / Jane Ussher

So, over the following 12 months, she underwent 14 gruelling rounds of chemotherapy.

Each chemo treatment took five days, but Ruby was so sick she remained in hospital between them.

She lived on Level 7, the oncology ward at Starship, that year. On rare visits home, she wore a nasal gastric tube. She lost her hair. Her school had a "Ruby Day", in which 14 of her friends had their heads shaved. Family friends looked after her younger sister, Noon.

The support was ceaseless, beginning with the doctors, nurses and specialists who helped her through the gruelling treatments and long hospital stays. Child Cancer Foundation gave her stuffed toys and a quilt; Make-A-Wish a laptop. Cure Kids took her to Queenstown for a weekend and Koru Care invited her on a 16-day trip to Disneyland.

The Los Angeles expedition was only two weeks after her final chemotherapy treatment in late 2007, and Sharon says it was touch-and-go whether Ruby would be well enough to make it.

Determined, Ruby decided to fundraise for it, and designed a tea towel with proud orange sunflowers. "Everybody needs a tea towel, right?" Ruby says.

"We made the first ones ourselves," says Sharon.

Ruby and Noon rolled them, tied them with an orange ribbon and sold them to friends.

"I went down to Jim, our local printer, and I agonised over whether to get 100 printed or 125. We ended up selling 700." Ruby gave $4000 to Koru Care, and was healthy enough to go to Disneyland.

"She never looked back from there."

Neither did her business venture. The following year Ruby decided to make a tea towel for another charity that had helped her. Starship was the obvious choice.

A few years before Ruby fell ill, her mother had been a Friends of Starship volunteer. They were an altruistic family - Ron was involved with Newmarket Rotary, and last year was district governor.

"Being in Friends of Starship doesn't make your children immune," says Sharon. "I had just resigned so I could spend more time with my family. The girls were getting older, they needed me more. And then suddenly, I was back at Starship, but on the other side."

In 2008, Ruby sold her first Starship tea towel, Sea Creatures, in local cafes - raising $5000 towards the massive cost of rebuilding the Level 7 oncology ward where she'd spent the previous year.

Her cottage industry then got serious. The family was approached by Bill and Paula Wallace, husband and wife owners of New Zealand linen company Wallace Cotton, about making Ruby's tea towels for her. They kept the price at $10, with all of the $6 profit going to the Starship Foundation.

The cotton was better quality, the colours more vibrant - and Ruby had only to draw the design, not sell the product.

In 2009, the Cupcake Recipe tea towel made $30,000; the following year Gingerbread Friends gave $72,000 to Starship. The most popular design has been Hokey Pokey Icecreams, which raised $89,000 towards a total revamp of the Level 6 Neurology and Medical Specialties wards.

Our only national children's hospital relies on fundraising over $5 million a year to ensure it keeps up with the world's best medical techniques. In 2012, it received $13 million in donated funds - just over half was from public donations.

Brad Clark, CEO of the Starship Foundation, admits the foundation's coffers took a hit during the global financial crisis and after Christchurch's earthquakes, but he's finally seeing a resurgence in giving in the "social profit world".

Ruby's yearly contributions might be a mere drop in the bigger bucket, but her fundraising goes specifically towards causes that she is allowed to choose.

Clark says there is no other fundraising example that mirrors hers. "The projects she donates to have to be relative to her. Initially, it was an emotional tie to the oncology ward, but now she understands the business side of it - that her contribution can help in other areas of Starship," he says.

The $66,400 raised from her 2012 Tree of Life bought a special baby simulator to train neonatal nurses. Last year's Smoothie tea towel has paid for Auckland neurocritical specialist Dr Anusha Ganeshalingham to spend a year at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and bring her knowledge back to Starship's PICU - the country's only paediatric intensive care unit.

"The beauty of it has been watching Ruby learning from this experience - business, e-commerce, design, marketing and working with customers," says Clark. "She's a hero to us. We've seen her blossom from a timid little girl who came to us so ill, into a quiet, unassuming but confident young woman."

Ruby doesn't study art at school, but she's always been keen on drawing. She sketches and colours at her desk in a second-storey alcove she shares with Noon, in a stylish pink house in Ellerslie designed by their dad.

Her designs are inspired by "whatever I'm enjoying doing at the time" - baking cupcakes, making smoothies. And she is not immune to the critiques of fans.

"People are very generous with their comments," says Sharon. "When there wasn't a recipe on one of the tea towels, there were some disappointed people. It's amazing how passionate and connected to the tea towels people became. There are collectors."

As Ruby's artwork expands into aprons, she's about to cut the apron strings - bound for Wellington next year to study business at Victoria University. She's considering a career in advertising or marketing. But she won't cut the ties to her kitchen enterprise.

"I think it's given me a head start. I'll keep doing it as long as Wallace Cotton wants to make them. I love seeing how it benefits Starship and what they put the money towards," she says.

She's now clear of cancer, but has yearly check-ups with her oncologist. Her liver, with its incredible regenerative powers, has grown back completely - as has her long, dark hair.

She plays social soccer and is learning Indian dancing. "I can do anything but run long distances. I've got a good excuse not to do marathons now," she laughs.

Ruby may have wiped away most of the memories of her time as a patient in Starship, but her parents won't forget. "It's not something we dwell on, but it never leaves you," Sharon says.

They're happy that their bond with the hospital still exists. "We feel really lucky that people have connected with Ruby's tea towels. I guess so many families have had some experience with Starship and the wonderful people there," Sharon says. "We couldn't have got better treatment anywhere in the world. We felt like we got the best."

Ruby's story features in a new book about Starship to celebrate the hospital's 20th anniversary. Starship: Inside Our National Children's Hospital, ed by Dr Lochie Teague ($49.99 at bookstores or at starship.org.nz/book) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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