“Jennifer is a jack of all trades. She bakes, cooks, cleans. She’s there at seven in the morning to prep breakfast and doesn’t leave until the dishes are done after dinner. She’s my kitchen hero.” – Chef Mo, Camp Kindle.
They say everything happens for a reason. But maybe, just maybe, things just happen to us. How we deal with them is what gives us purpose.
As a teenager, Jennifer Thiedemann’s daughter Jessica dealt with a lot. At the age of 12 she was diagnosed with juvenile dermatomyositis, a rare and life-threatening muscle disorder. Jessica’s early teen years – ones she planned to spend going to school and playing basketball – were spent dealing with steroids, appointments, hospitals, blood work and, sadly, bullying at school.
Jennifer was in awe of her daughter’s unbreakable spirit. Her daughter continued to have a wonderful zest for life and a love for her friends, family and school. After three years of treatments, Jessica returned to the basketball court – fully healed.
A year later, Jessica found herself back at the hospital. This time it was cancer. Diagnosed with melanoma at the age of 16, Jessica maintained her bubbly and captivating personality and her determined outlook, while undergoing surgery to remove the cancer. And, once again, she returned to normal life.
Jessica found purpose in the pain she endured in 2004, when she shaved off her beautiful blonde hair to raise funds to support children battling cancer through Kids Cancer Care’s Shave Your Lid for a Kid® program. It was just three days after her high school graduation. Jennifer recalls it fondly as the family’s first introduction to Kids Cancer Care.
Relapse is something every survivor fears and a second diagnosis has the power to destroy even the most resilient of spirits. Not Jessica.
For Jessica, the melanoma returned in her second year of university and this time, there were tumours in her lungs. Jessica inquired about treatment but the doctors told her the cancer had metastasized and there was little they could do. Jennifer remembers her daughter replying simply with, “I do not accept that, you have to do something.”
At Jessica’s insistence, she was accepted into a clinical drug trial in Edmonton. To this day, Jennifer remembers watching her daughter endure the painful treatment, amazed by her courage and strength. She endured the treatment not just once, but twice in a two-week span. Jessica gained thirty pounds in fluid in just three days.
On August 19, 2007, Jessica passed away in her mother’s arms. Those who loved her were heartbroken.
Jennifer’s children have always been her world and her sons’ activities kept her occupied between work at home and the graveyard shifts at work. But soon, her sons were adults and Jennifer found herself with spare time. She needed to find her purpose.
In 2011, she heard an ad for the Don, Joanne and the Coach Golf a Kid to Camp tournament for Kids Cancer Care. After signing up to volunteer at the event, Jennifer immediately felt close to her daughter.
In 2017, Jennifer was down to one job and had more time to volunteer. Doing more is exactly what Jessica would have done and Jennifer is finding new purpose in taking steps out of her comfort zone to be more like her daughter.
Kids Cancer Care’s biggest volunteer need comes each year during our summer camp programs at Camp Kindle. Jennifer knew that working directly with the kids affected by cancer as a volunteer counsellor could be emotionally challenging. Drawing strength from her daughter’s legacy, she knew this hurdle wouldn’t stop her. As someone who loves to bake and cook, Jennifer sought out Camp Kindle’s Chef Mo Syed.
Feeding hundreds of hungry campers is no easy task, so Chef Mo jumped at the opportunity to have a volunteer in his kitchen and asked Jennifer to join him during the last week of summer camp. Now this was serendipity. Jennifer always takes that week off work – as it was the week Jessica passed away. Instead of retreating in grief, she spent a wonderful week at camp cooking and helping out in the kitchen.
And boy, does she help out.
“Jennifer is a jack of all trades. She bakes, cooks, cleans,” Mo raves. “She’s there at seven in the morning to prep breakfast and doesn’t leave until the dishes are done after dinner. She’s my kitchen hero.”
As a bereaved mom, Jennifer believes she gets more than she gives at Camp Kindle. “I feel distant wherever I go, but this is where I belong. I’m comfortable here. I don’t have to explain myself. If I say I lost a child to cancer, you don’t get the blank stare. And that’s what brings me back to camp and to volunteer time and time again.”
While Jessica is no longer physically with her, Jennifer feels her daughter would be proud of her mother for continuing her legacy and finding her life’s purpose through volunteer work. As she continues to step outside her comfort zone, Jennifer takes on more volunteer roles at Kids Cancer Care fundraising events: Tour for Kids, Dad and Daughter Gala and Parents’ Quest for the Cure. And, of course, she’ll be back in the kitchen again this summer. Her purpose now is to be someone who exhibits Jessica’s qualities to keep her memory alive: “I miss her to the depths of my soul. But at some point I will see her again and I have to be able to say, ‘I did okay’”.
Thank you to our amazing volunteers, who generously share their passion and purpose with us.