It started with a 7-year-old named Caroline who wanted to help her little brother and the other kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“She just randomly said one day, ‘I want to have an art sale to support the children of St. Jude,’” said her mom, Lauren.
But it wasn’t so random. Not really. Her brother’s cancer had come back in November, and even as young as she was, Caroline knew what that meant. Another bone marrow transplant. Another separation.
Jennings had been on her mind, and she pondered how she could help her little 5-year-old brother.
Don’t we all have that feeling when someone we love is sick? That desire to make it all better?
The idea, when it came, flowed straight from her heart: An art show to support St. Jude, the place that was working so hard to cure Jennings.
Nurtured by a loving mom
“Even during a very intense time for me emotionally, I just wanted to honor her idea and execute it for her, so I promised her that we would do it,” said Lauren, who has 3-year-old twins in addition to Caroline and Jennings. “It’s important for her to feel like she’s helping and a part of things.”
I really wanted to make sure she knew her idea was important and wonderful.
Caroline created a few pieces of artwork and asked other children in their Charlotte, North Carolina, community to do the same.
With her mom’s guidance, Caroline gathered the artwork, labeled it and numbered it, learning a lot in the process and enjoying the special time with her mom.
Lauren admits it helped her, too.
Ever since 2017 when Jennings was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, she’s been living in two worlds: the healthy kid world and the sick kid world.
“And often just some time with your healthy kid is just the normalcy and distraction you need to steel you up for the other world that you’re living in,” said Lauren. “So it was absolutely helpful and a wonderful distraction.”
Helped by a legion of kids
The art sale consisted of 140 pieces of art made by about 100 children, and Lauren even had to turn some families away.
“I only made the drop-off day a three-day window because I didn’t want to have too much that I could not manage, and I wanted to be a good steward of these children’s art,” said Lauren.
For three days in December, at any given hour, they might look outside and catch a glimpse of a parent pulling up and setting down a wrapped canvas before driving away. “When you look at all the artwork together, it’s such a beautiful picture of childhood and brightness and color and innocence,” said Lauren.
Giving Jennings the best chance
Caroline was Jennings’ bone marrow donor at St. Jude 2 1⁄2 years ago.
“We explained to her that she gave him 2 1⁄2 wonderful cancer-free years,” said Lauren.
Caroline may not understand the science behind why they can’t use her cells again, but she knows Jennings needs something different to get better.
“She just accepted that it came back and we’re going to try something new,” said Lauren. “We’re going to try Daddy’s cells this time and see if that keeps it away.”
The chemo needs to drive Jennings’ cancer into remission before he can be cleared for his second transplant. That didn’t happen with his first round of chemo, but hopefully it will with his second round, which just took place at the St. Jude affiliate clinic in Charlotte.
If all goes well, he’s scheduled to be admitted to St. Jude in Memphis in mid-February for his transplant workup and procedure.
“So hopefully we’ll get our family Valentine’s Day celebration,” said Lauren.
She and her husband, Joel, pray for that.
A community showed its heart
As a COVID-19 precaution, they hosted the art sale virtually earlier this month. They posted photos of the artwork on Facebook and asked people to claim their favorite piece of art and pay whatever they could.
“We sold every piece of art that everyone made,” said Lauren. “Every single one.”
Buyers included people the family had never met. “Goodhearted people out there who wanted to support a big sister in her act of love for her brother and for other kids,” said Lauren.
You couldn’t call them strangers, said Lauren, because she knew their heart.
“Those who aren’t walking this road, they really want to help,” said Lauren.
Caroline and her mom did a video call with Jennings and Joel at Jennings' inpatient room at the St. Jude affiliate clinic to let them know how the art show did. More than $6,000 raised for St. Jude.
At 5 years old, Jennings has an imperfect understanding of money. They probably could have said $6 million dollars, and he wouldn’t have been any more impressed.
But he understood what was important: about Caroline and her big idea, and his mom who helped pull it off, and the kids in town and their parents who wanted to help. And he understood the people who jumped online and gave — some of them strangers — and his father who was there beside him during the video call, ready to give Jennings his life-giving cells: They loved him.
So Jennings cheered for his sister and her big idea, and he cheered loud.