James Fund Neuroblastoma Family Retreat

Celebrating the 6th annual Nexicom James Fund Golf Classic and the hope it can inspire

Jennifer Gillespie, her husband Chris Bumstead, and their children Breanna and Trevor make up one of many families that are thankful for the ongoing support of the Nexicom James Fund Golf Classic (photo: Jennifer Gillespie, Once Upon a Time...Photography)
Jennifer Gillespie, her husband Chris Bumstead, and their children Breanna and Trevor make up one of many families that are thankful for the ongoing support of the Nexicom James Fund Golf Classic (photo: Jennifer Gillespie, Once Upon a Time...Photography)

When a family learns their child has a rare and deadly form of cancer, the shock and despair is beyond overwhelming. It’s often the shared experience of others who know exactly what that despair is about that can carry a family through.

That shared experience is what the 6th annual Nexicom James Fund Golf Classic is all about.

Yes, it’s a fabulous tournament at one of the finest golf courses in the region (the Kawartha Golf and Country Club), complete with auctions, prizes, and a banquet dinner fit for any classic wedding setting — but it’s the James Fund Neuroblastoma Family Retreat the tournament funds that makes it mean so much for so many people.

In 1997, Jennifer Gillespie learned her daughter had neuroblastoma, the deadly cancer that took young James Birrell’s life in 2001 when he was only 8 years old and spawned the fund in his name we know today.

“It’s life-changing. Devastating,” she says, thinking back to those first dark days as she tried to grasp what doctors were telling her.

“You just can’t even imagine it’s true or that it’s even happening and, of course, neuroblastoma is such a rare form of cancer that it’s often under-funded and you just don’t know who to talk to.”

Those first few weeks following the diagnosis were filled with “information overload” for Jennifer and her husband, Chris Bumstead, but she eventually found time to read information on The James Fund that she picked up at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.

As she read about the research funded in James Birrell’s name and the family retreat where sick children can be kids again and families are safe in each other’s common worry, a sense of hope began to unfold. She realized her family wasn’t alone.

“That was the one thing we were lacking was the support,” Jennifer recalls. “We didn’t have anyone to go to or talk to and we just felt so alone, so it was just incredible to see that they had started this retreat and that they had this group of people who all had the same connection.”

The first year they attended the retreat in 2008 was “the most magical weekend” with expenses fully covered thanks to the tournament and other private donors.

They were awestruck by the sense of solidarity that permeated the atmosphere; there were no pretenses and no need to explain any emotion to anyone — everything was clear.

“It’s basically an extended family,” Jennifer says. “It’s just an instant bond and connection. We’ve all be told our child has cancer and it’s neuroblastoma, and that’s one thing we have in common.”

Families come away from the retreat with renewed energy and determination to fight the disease for themselves, their friends and other families, Jennifer says — not unlike young James Birrell who, only weeks before his death, told his father Syd that “I will always be fighting cancer.”

Breanna’s prognosis six years after diagnosis is a good one, and her family is eternally grateful for this current reality, but Jennifer says the fear never goes away.

“Just to talk that out with somebody who understands means the world,” she says, her voice quivering with emotion.

So each year as the family retreat comes to a close, Jennifer and her family begin looking forward to the next one.

“To have something like the retreat has just been incredible,” she says, in gratitude for all who help sponsor it. “It’s like a god-send to us, because without that we wouldn’t have met all the people that we’ve met to get us through all we’ve gone through.”

This is the third in a series of stories by Kristian Partington about the James Fund Golf Classic. Read the first and the second.

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