Business executive Barbara Hensley got an eye-opening look at the realities of breast cancer treatment when both her sisters were battling the disease in the 1990s.

One sister, more affluent, received chemotherapy in a private curtained space with a window. The other sister underwent chemo in a room with 60 other patients, each of whom had an extra chair, for a support person. But many of the chairs were empty.

"Where are their friends, sisters, husbands?" Hensley wondered.

Then she understood.

As a professional, she could miss work to support her sisters — and not get fired. But these women — and their loved ones — worked hourly jobs, where absence meant losing a paycheck and risking the loss of the job itself.

She met one such patient, Nancy, a young single mother, who did have people at her side — her three preschool children.

"She got sick, lost her [two] jobs and had no money for child care," Hensley recalled. "That was an a-ha moment."

Hensley played with the children to occupy them while Nancy got her chemo, then offered to help her get the children to her car. "She said, 'You can't. We don't have a car.' "

Hensley was shocked. Nancy, who was sick to the point of vomiting, had had to take the bus with three youngsters in tow.

She never forgot about Nancy. A few years later, after both her sisters had died while in their 40s, Hensley decided to do something to help breast-cancer patients cover day-to-day expenses while they were undergoing treatment.

She didn't have enough money to start a foundation. ("I'm not independently wealthy," she said.) But she did know business, so she decided to start one — an upscale resale operation. People could donate their furniture, a store would sell it, and the proceeds would help fund grants to cover patients' housing, transportation, food and child-care bills.

At age 52, Hensley left her well-paying career and began working full-time to bring her idea to reality.

"People thought I was crazy," she recalled. "One person who didn't doubt me was my husband [Jay]," who supported her decision.

She wrote a business plan, recruited a volunteer board, and in 2002, opened a retail store, Hope Chest, to fund the Hope Chest for Breast Cancer Foundation.

Hensley, who lives near Shakopee, chose Orono for the first store.

"Location is really important," she said. "I wanted to be close to my donors," affluent lake dwellers. "I wanted them to think about us every time they drive by."

Today, there are three stores: the original one in Orono, another in Bloomington and a new store in the Eden Prairie Mall. (A St. Paul store lost its lease in 2014.) All three stores are filled with furniture and household goods, arranged in attractive vignettes, and racks of new and lightly used clothing. Fifteen percent of store proceeds flow to the foundation, which has disbursed $1.7 million in Emergency Assistance Grants to more than 5,000 patients since its founding in 2002.

Hope Chest is picky about what donated goods it accepts.

"What matters to my shopper is that everything here is a treasure," said Hensley.

Donors can drop off their donations at a store, or call to schedule an in-home pickup for $25.

About 10 years ago, Hope Chest partnered with Open Arms to add a delivery service, Meals that Heal. Patients undergoing chemo need high-quality nutritious food, Hensley said. "But many were eating the cheapest they could."

Hope Chest recently launched another new initiative, Hope Chest Go, a software application that allows patients to apply for grants online — and get speedier checks — rather than having to go through their care providers.

"The need is out there," said Hensley, noting that about 4,500 women have breast cancer diagnosed every year in Minnesota. One-third of them will lose their jobs as a result.

"Our vision is to grow our number of stores, to take care of more patients in Minnesota and then Wisconsin," she said.

Now 70, Hensley has transitioned into a new role as founder/visionary and board member. A year and a half ago, she hired executive director Nancy Pilhofer to manage the foundation and pursue grants and corporate donations. Director of retail operations Leslie Wood oversees the stores.

Everyone involved is committed to the mission, Wood said. "The reason we're here is not the product but the patients. … You're not just buying a love seat, you're putting meals on somebody's table."

But even though she's handed over the reins, Hensley remains deeply involved. "She has endless passion for it, and it's very real," Pilhofer said. "At a fundraiser, I watched her go to every table and talk to everyone. You can't help but be moved."

When Hensley makes her weekly visits to each store, "she hugs every associate and talks to every shopper," said Wood.

And she's still recruiting board members. "You can't say no to her," said Beth LaBreche, who recently joined the board, 10 years after Hensley first approached her.

"I've slowed down," said Hensley. "But this baby can run without me. To know it's going to go on, that's what's important to me."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784