By Mike Brue
Loyal. Organized. Outdoorsy.
Stubborn? “Ohhh, yeah,” said brother-in-law Kyle Sullivan, chuckling at the thought.
Hardworking. Heartwarming. Helpful, at a moment’s notice, often without needing to be asked.
Think of Jen Sullivan, and all of those descriptions come to mind, according to several close family members and friends.
Friendly? She is. Family-minded? Absolutely. Quick-witted? Fun-loving? “She’s the one,” longtime friend Brenda Bruse said, “who can make you smile from the inside out.”
To hear family and friends talk, these Jen traits have held true for years — back to when today’s 34-year-old Grand Forks married mom of two was a young East Grand Forks, Minn., teen known as Jenny Anderson.
Among some of her closest relatives and friends, there’s an expectation that today, during a community gathering from 3 to 8 p.m. at East Grand Forks’ Eagles Club, one Jen Sullivan description will shine above all others.
Expect that to be on display, they say, in so many words, hugs and smiles. With helpings of laughter and probably some tears, too.
It also will be felt, they say, with so many bake sale purchases, silent auction bids and taco-in-a-bag forkfuls.
“I don’t think she realizes the enormity of the impact she’s had on all of these people that have come together for her,” said Jaime Milne-Brown, a friend since their childhood days in East Grand Forks.
“You know, I think she’s a little surprised,” Kyle Sullivan said of his sister-in-law. “I don’t know if she really expected this much of a reaction, something of this magnitude. You can tell she’s pretty touched by it. But she doesn’t get all mushy with you either.
“She’s not one to look for help. She’s always been, if she needs something, she’ll do it herself. She’ll accept help, but she’ll never ask for it.”
Jen Sullivan wrote in an email this week to NDAD, one of the benefit sponsors, that she’s “very grateful for everyone’s hard work.” She wrote that she wants to “thank my family and friends for all of their support” – and tell them “that I love them!”
She’d rather tell everyone that in person.
Jen Sullivan intends to attend Saturday’s benefit, a feat far from likely just weeks ago. After she was left physically disabled last fall by advanced, stage 4 breast cancer, she’s spent weeks battling back with chemotherapy and hours of strenuous rehabilitation therapy. She’s regained some weight, strength and mobility.
To those close to Jen, her intense battle for life reinforces some other oft-used words to describe her.
Upbeat. Positive. Determined.
“She’s determined, I think, in every aspect of her life,” said her sister, Katy Storey, 27. “She’s bound and determined to take care of everything she needs to. She’s carried that into her cancer battle.”
“She gets knocked on her knees and she just gets up and keeps going, fighting amazingly hard,” Kyle Sullivan said. “It’s inspiring to watch her push like this.”
Jen fully intends to be share today’s benefit experience with her daughter, Kacey, 14, her son, Aaron, 11; and Shawn Sullivan, her high school sweetheart-turned-husband of 14 years.
Shawn and Jenny met through a mutual friend when she was an East Grand Forks school freshman and he a Grand Forks school sophomore. They dated throughout high school and married on Sept. 25, 1998.
“You would never have imagined when they were meeting . . . that it would be a forever thing,” said Milne-Brown, now a California resident who still recalls the young couple’s earliest days. “But even back then, it didn’t seem any different than it is today between them. They are definitely meant for each other.”
According to some people close to them, Shawn is more quiet and Jen more talkative. They give and take well, frequently with humorous pokes.
Jen wasn’t as humored one day, years ago, when Shawn remarked how often his wife seemed to be make meatloaf.
As the story goes, she hasn’t made it since.According to brother-in-law Kyle, Jen “can be as stubborn as any of us Sullivans, which is saying something.”
Meatloaf or no, “it’s always been Jenny and Shawn,” Jen’s sister Katy said. “They’re great together.”
A concrete finisher, Shawn has worked in construction with Wes Rogers Construction of Grand Forks since Shawn’s teen years. Jen’s work life, meanwhile, has included time as a receptionist at Advance Chiropractic and, more recently, as a process analyst at Noridian Administrative Services.
During their years together, the couple spent many hours of free time camping, fishing, hiking, golfing and watching movies together. That love of camping has been shared with their children. Their memorable family trips include two in northeast Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Always “big on family vacations,” Jen was “the driving force” behind the BWCA trips, says Kyle, who was along for both. “She’s the one who makes sure everything is coordinated, ready to go, organized and packed. Once they’re out there, she’s the one who makes sure everything that needs to get done is done.
“But she also somehow manages to find time to catch more fish than we do.”
The Sullivans also split as much time as possible between Devils Lake, where family friends have a lake place, and northwest Minnesota’s Union Lake, home of an Anderson family retreat.
Jen is “really outgoing with her family,” Kyle Sullivan said, “but she would rather spend an afternoon in her backyard with family than partying it up somewhere with a crowd.”
Shawn and Jen Sullivan keep very busy admiring Kacey’s volleyball and softball play, or her participation in school musicals. Or, they watch Aaron play golf, baseball and Squirt hockey — the latter while their son wears pink laces and pink hockey tape to show support for his ailing mom.
Despite her struggles, Jen attempts to make her attendance at her children’s games a priority.
“Kacey and Aaron are Jenny’s life,” family friend Bruse said.
“I remember her crying over one of Aaron’s school pictures. I can’t remember if it was for kindergarten or first grade. But when she saw him in his button-up shirt, she cried because her little boy looked so grown up.”
Now Jen Sullivan fights for the chance to her children grow toward adulthood. She battles for an opportunity to continue experiencing the joys of life – and making sure that the people around her do so, too.
“If Jenny is having fun, so are you,” said Bruse, who serves as chairperson for the Jen Sullivan fundraiser. “If Jenny is singing, you will be singing with her. If Jenny is dancing, you and everyone else are dancing with her.
“Jenny needs to dance,” Bruse added, “and I will do anything I can to be able to dance with her again.”
To hear family and friends tell it, Jen Anderson Sullivan – fun-loving, stubborn and loved – may settle for nothing less.
Mike Brue is communications director for NDAD.
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About NDAD Community Fundraisers
If you have ever considered organizing a fundraiser for someone dealing with a disability or other serious health challenge, know that help is available.
It comes in the form of NDAD’s Community Fundraiser program. And it’s free.
NDAD, a charitable nonprofit, acts as custodian of the funds that are raised. Funds can be used to help the individual with medical and other urgent needs and expenses. This can include help covering doctor, clinic or hospital bills, paying pre-existing bills; health insurance premiums. It also can be used for essential, non-medical day-to-day general living expenses.
The total of all funds raised – 100 percent — are spent on the client’s needs. It’s a service NDAD, which began in 1975, has provided across North Dakota for the majority of its existence. References are available.
The program benefits come in other forms, too:
* NDAD is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, meaning any funds donated to NDAD in the fund drive recipient’s name qualify as a charitable donation and are deductible for donors who itemize. Funds donated to bank accounts that are not under federal 501(c)(3) statuses are not deductible donations.
* Donations directly to a needy individual may cause that person to lose eligibility for various public assistance programs that are based on income. With NDAD serving as fund custodian, the funds raised should not affect eligibility for public programs.
* NDAD allows the client to use the bank of his or her choice to hold all funds that are raised. NDAD tracks all funds raised and expenses paid. The client, family member or representative can bring in the donation, and NDAD will provide the necessary accounting functions.
* Approved bills must be submitted to NDAD, where they will be paid with donated funds — a service that can be of great relief to individuals or families dealing with overwhelming situations. If clients are at medical facilities out of town for long periods of time, it also can be a great convenience.
* NDAD’s long reputable service in North Dakota may be a factor when potential donors consider whether to contribute to a fundraiser. In addition to NDAD’s safeguards for fund use, each fund withdraw must be authorized by a fund drive chairperson.
Also, NDAD provides marketing and consulting expertise to help with fundraisers, including creation and copying of fliers, letters or other publicity that can help contribute to a fund drive’s success.
NDAD’s Community Fundraisers has helped many in need, and it can help someone you know. Learn more by calling (701) 775-5577 or toll free 1 (800) 532-NDAD. Learn about other recent NDAD-sponsored fundraisers at http://www.NDAD.org/fundraisers.asp.