The Zinnia Project: How an idea born in the hospital bloomed into a way to give back

The Zinnia Project: How an idea born in the hospital bloomed into a way to give back
Published: Jul. 11, 2023 at 5:39 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - For patients hospitalized while undergoing cancer treatment, it can be lonely and overwhelming.

In this month’s Link to Hope, how one Lexington woman is using her own cancer journey to turn pain into purpose and grow a project now spreading cheer at UK’s Markey Cancer Center.

Serving others is something Sarah Lister knows well.

As the former Executive Director of the Ronald McDonald House in Lexington, she spent years promoting its mission and taking care of families until she couldn’t.

“It was right after Christmas. Moms are tired. It was easy to just think maybe I had a case of the flu,” said Sarah Lister.

In 2016 Lister was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

She spent weeks in the hospital receiving treatment and then needed a bone marrow transplant.

“I was kind of glad that I didn’t know just how sick I was because, in that first month, I think I had about a 20% chance of surviving the cancer that I had,” said Lister.

One of the hardest parts of her cancer journey was being in the hospital for 127 days and away from her two young sons.

It was during that time an idea started to bloom.

“In that first month, I realized just how ill-prepared I was to be in a hospital for 30 days, so one of the things I did was I got the Notes App on my phone and just started keeping a list of what I wanted to pack if I had to come back,” said Lister.

Lister wanted to help her fellow cancer patients going through the same thing, so in 2017 she started The Zinnia Project.

“And one of the things that just broke my heart, and I could cry just thinking about it, was all the patients that were there who had no one caregiving for them,” said Lister.

The Zinnia Project has grown into a way to deliver what Lister calls “useful” cheer.

Lister chose the name Zinnia because it’s a flower she says is similar to folks like herself battling cancer.

“Zinnia flowers are super strong, they are beautiful, they are colorful, and they are resilient,” said Lister.

Lister is still undergoing treatment, so when she is at the hospital, she packs up her goods and makes a long trek through Markey Cancer Center to the nurse’s station for her special delivery.

Lister says the response to the Zinnia Project has been heartwarming.

“I hope that the Zinnia Project is being delivered with the intention of cheer and comfort and care,” said Lister.

The Zinnia Project runs solely on the kindness of others.

For more information and to donate online, visit the webpage:

The Zinnia Project Mission

“To deliver cheer to cancer patients and their caregivers”

Sarah Lister, Founder (and Hematology patient)

Cell: (859)797-0864


The Zinnia Project programs include*:

Zinnia Project Patient Baskets

A laundry basket (patients in the hospital must do their own personal laundry) filled with toiletries, writing supplies and bedside essentials for those special patients identified by the nursing staff who have limited resources or support and could use a little extra help. (Photo)

($100 value)


Welcome bags for all hospitalized Cancer patients at UK Markey Cancer Center that include a supply of toiletries and comfort items given to every blood cancer patient upon their arrival. (Toothbrush, toothpaste, sleep mask, earplugs, Purel wipes, mirror, hand lotion and chapstick.) (Photo)

($25 value)

Coloring Kits:

A cheerful kit with a Zinnia Bouquet coloring page and a pack of color pencils. (Photo)

($10 value)

Holiday Gift

An annual gift of cheer for all hospitalized Cancer patients during the week of Christmas.

Kindness from donors near and far make it all possible!

Amazon Wish list:

Contact for current Wish List link:

*All Zinnia Project items have been approved by the Hematology Nurse Management Team @ University of Kentucky HealthCare / Markey Cancer Center.