The Story of Jil's Angels

What Can We Do To Help?

by Judy Tanna (Member of BCNA's NSW Women's Advisory Network)

If you are currently supporting a friend with breast cancer, our story may be of interest to you.  It is a story of a community's response to tragedy, of unconditional friendship, of miracles, and ultimately of triumph over adversity.  It is the story of "Jil's Angels", which is a support group that was formed when our dear friend, Jil Wood, was diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of breast cancer.  We are sharing this story with the hope that the strategies (and mistakes!) that we made on our 10-month journey will help other groups of friends that are asking themselves, "What can we do to help?"

When Jil was diagnosed with breast cancer, our entire school community went into shock.  With daughters in Year 4 and Year 1, and as an active member of several school committees, Jil had a wide network of friends in the community.  You could see the parents' stunned faces in car line, in the grocery store aisles, at the local florist.   Everyone knew that Jil's parents and in-laws lived overseas, so she would not have the support of extended family for her ensuing battle.

Shortly after Jil's diagnosis, a few close friends met to discuss how to harness the groundswell of concern and emotion into an organised, non-intrusive support group for the Wood Family. We wanted to organise the community spirit in a way that would make a real difference to Jil and her family. Our goal was to free Jil from the mundane aspects of running a busy household, so that she could focus on her family and on her health. Before formalising any plans, we met with Jil and her husband, Rob, to ask for their permission to set up the support group.  As a busy International Sales Executive, Rob recognized that it would be beneficial to have help on hand when he had to travel overseas. Jil was hesitant at first, as she was not comfortable being dependent on friends for help.  But as a Registered Nurse, she recognised that she had a rough road ahead.

The first email introducing the idea of "Jil's Angels" brought a response from 70 families in the Pymble Ladies' College community.  Friends offered to cook, drive, babysit, grocery shop, walk the dog, clean the house, style wigs, deliver medicine, or to just sit and listen.  With so many volunteers, and so many tasks at hand, we had to devise strategies to maximize the impact, but minimize the intrusion on the Wood Family.  We came up with a "wish list" of tasks that could easily be delegated to Jil's Angels.  Once we had completed the wish list, we split the list into four main areas.  We then assigned one Angel to manage each area, to lighten the load and make the coordination of each area easier to manage:

Providing meals:

We did not want Jil to suffer the embarrassment or inconvenience of having friends deliver food to her home each day.  So we organised two delivery points at homes near the school, where freezer space was allocated to Jil's Angels.  Each "chef" that had volunteered to cook was assigned to a specific week to deliver a meal that could be frozen and easily reheated.  During the first week, we tried to do the "environmentally correct" thing, and have the meals delivered in casserole dishes.  But as Jil's kitchen was soon overrun with Tupperware containers that needed to be returned, we soon recognised that disposable packaging was the only way to go!

The Wood Family had a freezer in their garage, so once a week the Catering Manager would take the meals that had been dropped at the delivery points, and would stock their freezer, sometimes when they were not even home.  This meant that the meals were supplied steadily and unobtrusively.  We also specified that other than a list of ingredients and cooking instructions, there was not to be any identifying information.  So Jil never knew which Angel had provided the meal.  This saved her from spending her precious time on thank you notes!

Email was crucial to the success of Jil's Angels, and having a "master list" of chefs made it easy to circulate schedules and special requests. When we were overrun with spaghetti bolognaise and pumpkin soup, a diplomatically worded email encouraged everyone to expand their repertoire.  And when Rob was struggling with providing the girls with healthy, interesting lunches each day, a flood of "frozen and ready to pop into the lunch box" options were supplied.

Transportation and Scheduling for the kids:

The Angel in charge of transportation and scheduling for the girls devised a calendar that summarised all of their before and after school activities.  Jil and Rob added her name to the list of carers authorised to pick them up from school.  This gave Jil and Rob the peace of mind to know that if they were delayed during treatments, the girls would be looked after and would be able to continue with their normal schedule.

We also asked Jil and Rob to nominate three families that the girls would be happy to stay with, should the need arise. We equipped each house with pyjamas, a change of clothes and toiletries for the girls, so that they would feel more "at home" with their own belongings.  There were four occasions during Jil's treatment when she was rushed to hospital in the middle of the night.  With the transportation and accommodation already planned, Jil knew that the girls would be as comfortable as possible, and would be well looked after, even in the event of an emergency.

Household management: 

In order to help Jil keep on top of the mundane, everyday tasks involved with running a busy household we devised a special group of friends called "Ladies in Waiting".   We asked Jil to nominate 10 friends that she would be happy to welcome to her home, while wearing her pyjamas!   Each friend was rostered on once every other week (excluding weekends), and on her nominated day, that friend would be Jil's "right-hand woman" for moral support and errands.  Some friends would add Jil's shopping list to their own on that day.  Some picked up dry cleaning.  Some didn't see her at all if she didn't need help that day.  Some were able to join her in her passion for quilting. and some just sat quietly while she slept.

Jil's daughters made a beautiful Treasure Box that became a permanent fixture on their kitchen counter.  The Treasure Box held a $150 float, to reimburse any monies spent on groceries, dry cleaning, etc.  This kept potentially embarrassing financial transactions to a minimum, as Jil knew that her friends would be reimbursed immediately.

Communication:

As mentioned earlier, email was crucial to the success of Jil's Angels.  With the click of a button, we were able to keep everyone in the group informed.  The Angel in charge of communication wrote an email each week, to keep the team updated on Jil's progress.

Jil later said that this was invaluable, as it saved her the trouble of recounting the details of her recovery over and over again.  Below are a couple of emails that were sent, to give you an idea of the spirit of the information that was exchanged.

The message sent just before school holidays in December:

"Dear Friends,
Jil is home, safe and sound, and is recovering from surgery and preparing for the big move.  For anyone else, this would sound almost impossible, but Jil continues to astound with her optimism and determination.  The Wood Family will be moving on 13 December.  Many people have offered to help with the move, but Jil and Rob will be bringing in the professionals. 

Jil's final stage of recovery will be a 5-week course of radiation.  She is still waiting for the dates to be confirmed.  I will send messages when information becomes available, but I am anticipating a relatively quiet and restful holiday for the Wood Family.
This will probably be the last message before many Angles fly away for the holidays.  I hope that amidst the end-of-year frenzy, we are each able to take a few moments to be grateful for the incredible community that we are all participating in.  And to be grateful for the inspiration that is our friend Jil."

And this message was sent after the first week back at school:

"Dear Friends,
Now that we have negotiated our way through the first week of endless name tags, book covers, frenzied mornings, and extra-curricular schedules, I wanted to send an update on Jil's progress.  She started radiation on 9 January, and she will receive treatment until this Friday, 10 February.  She will continue to undergo medical treatment throughout 2006, but it looks like the worst is over!

It would be difficult to summarise the impact that the past 10 months have had on everyone involved in Jil's Angels.  There were dozens of quiet achievers who mastered the art of non-intrusive support to the Wood Family.  There were caterers, drivers, sunflower deliverers, dog walkers, Ladies in Waiting, Knights in Shining Armour, wig consultants, eyelash attachers, funny friends, sad friends, couriers, grocery shoppers, babysitters, quiet listeners, and so much more.  On behalf of the Wood family, I extend one last unconditional and universal "thank you".

Many friends have told me that in the days just after Jil's diagnosis, their hearts used to skip a beat when they saw that they had received a message about Jil.  Thankfully, those frightening days have passed.  But the community spirit and goodwill that we all shared will be with us always."

We are happy to report that Jil's treatment ended in early 2007, and she continues to be cancer free.  It is our hope that the strategies that we devised to maximize the impact and minimise the intrusiveness of Jil's Angels, help other groups that are interested in supporting a friend.


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