Crafting beads of courage

Published 4:46 pm Friday, October 1, 2010

Janelle Zorko crafts a glass bead in her studio using a torch. (Reporter Photos/Jon Goering)

By KATIE HURST/ Staff Writer

CHELSEA — As 7-year-old Emily Knerr sits in the lobby of Children’s Hospital in downtown Birmingham, she shows off her seven strands of vibrant colored glass beads. She runs her fingers along each bead, some small and smooth, others bumpy or formed into shapes.

“I think they’re pretty,” Emily said.

Emily collected the beads slowly and painfully over the last year as she underwent treatment for ovarian cancer. Each bead represents a treatment she had to go through on her road to recovery. Red beads represent blood transfusions, stars represent surgery, white is chemotherapy and special glow-in-the-dark beads signify radiation.

Emily has a bead of a child’s face that represents hair loss and several bumpy textured beads that tell of rough times in her recovery. A large purple heart means Emily has finished treatment and is currently in remission.

Emily Knerr,7, showcases her seven strands of beads she recieved through Beads of Courage Inc.

The beads given to Emily and other children dealing with serious illnesses throughout the country are part of the nonprofit program, Beads of Courage Inc.  Many of the beads are donated from artists across the nation, including one glass artist in Shelby County.

Janelle Zorko of Chelsea began blowing glass beads six years ago. She sells her beads to local bead businesses and makes them into jewelry, which she sells on her website. A year ago, she started contributing beads to Beads of Courage Inc.

“There’s so many things you could do to make a kid feel better when they’re sick, but this is something they can look forward to,” she said. “It’s like a badge of courage.”

Zorko said Beads of Courage puts out notices when they need a certain kind of bead, asking members of the glass community to donate. She said they often ask for airplanes, trucks, hearts or glow-in-the-dark beads. She said the saddest requests are for butterfly beads. The butterfly bead is given to families who have lost a child.

In May, Zorko got to meet several of the recipients of her beads when Children’s Hospital asked her to come in and make jewelry with the children.

“It’s amazing to see all these kids,” she said. “It’s sad, but on the other hand, it comforts them so it’s nice.

“They put colors together I never would have thought would go together and it still looks great,” she added. “The kids don’t care if they’re beautiful beads. They love the purple and green and brown ones. They have their own style but it looks good. Very artistic.”

Zorko plans to continue her partnership with Children’s Hospital and of coarse, contributing to Beads of Courage.

Janelle Zorko in her bead-making studio in Chelsea.

Emily’s mother Amanda Knerr said the beads give the children courage to face the next procedure, the next “bumpy time.” Emily enjoys showing off her seven strands of beads. She’s currently working on her eighth.

“She’s proud of them because we really kept up with them,” Knerr said. “We get one almost every visit. She’s pretty proud of the fact that she has the most of everyone. I would prefer she didn’t have any beads but it will be a visual reputation she’ll have for the rest of her life.”

For more information on Beads of Courage, visit To see Zorko work, visit her website,