San Clemente, CA - Suzi Burke is a 73-year-old mother of two, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of three. Speaking with her, one is immediately struck by a boundless energy and enthusiasm that most people one-half (or even one-third) her age can’t ever hope to match.
This spirit has enabled her and a veritable platoon of Marine wives to raise $96,000 for the Semper Fi Fund over the past five years by creating and selling earrings, bracelets and necklaces of her own design.
“Years ago, I was teaching up in Glendale, California, and my husband retired,” Suzi says. “We moved to Fallbrook, on the eastern side of Camp Pendleton, and I got a job teaching at the Marine base. It was a wonderful experience. But when Desert Storm happened, it became very stressful with so many parents of so many kids being sent to the Gulf.
“I took a jewelry-making class for therapy,” Suzi continues. “The instructor saw what I was doing and told me that she knew the jewelry buyer at Nordstrom. Well, the next thing I know, my jewelry was in 21 Nordstrom stores all up and down the west coast!”
Suzi became good friends with Tammy Ferrando, the jewelry buyer at one of those 21 stores. Tammy’s husband is a Marine, and one day they were talking about all the stones and beads in Suzi’s home.
“What do you think of making gifts for the wives of Marines overseas?” Suzi asked. Tammy loved the idea, and before long Suzi was making plans to create 500 sets of earrings and bracelets. She assembled a team of Marine wives she came to call her Elves—they would disappear with their raw materials during the day and return with finished jewelry at night. (Suzi, of course, was the CEA: Chief Elf of All.)
Nordstrom donated the boxes and ribbon to wrap the 500 sets of jewelry. After they were distributed to the wives, and Suzi and the Elves all looked at each other: “We can’t stop here.”
Suzy asked Tammy, “Okay, I’ve got a willing group. Where can we go next?” Jewelry for charity was the next step, and five years ago that charity became the Semper Fi Fund.
“Everything I made for Nordstrom I made for the Marines,” Suzi said. “If earrings sold in Nordstrom for $25, we sold them for $10. We sold bracelets for $15 and necklaces ranged from $65 to $95.”
Suzi personally paid for all the raw materials for all the jewelry created over the years. Creating an average necklace might require 50 to 100 all-natural stones and beads, and an average bracelet might require 20. Do the math and it quickly becomes clear that Suzi and her Elves were dealing with tens of thousands of beads and stones—handled one at a time, creating one jewelry piece at a time and collectively raising a lot of money and awareness for the Semper Fi Fund.
“This is my motivation,” Suzi says. “It’s one tiny step at a time. The history that I’ve had personally with the families at Camp Pendleton, the history of my husband training at Camp Pendleton, I have one grandson who was in the Marine Corps and another grandson who was in the Air Force—that’s where my heart is.”
After 10 years, however, Suzi has decided to take a break from jewelry-making to care for her husband, who has Parkinson’s. While it’s hard to imagine that she’s created her last piece of jewelry, it’s impossible to ignore the magnitude of the contribution she and her Elves have made over the last decade. Every bead and stone on each earring, bracelet and necklace represents so much:
The idea that one person can make a huge difference. That those who support play a powerful role assisting those who serve. That for every ear, wrist and neck decorated with one of the Elves’ creations there’s someone risking life and limb on behalf of every one of us.
Suzi and her Elves are a wonderful example of the holiday spirit—that the greatest gift one can receive is the feeling that comes from giving of one’s self to help others. It’s important, too, to remember that helping others doesn’t always have to happen in big ways—that big achievements are most often accomplished one step (or bead or stone) at a time.
May you (and your Elves, of course) enjoy the holidays, Suzi—you’ve certainly made them a bit brighter for thousands of military families over the past decade!