by Allyson Gaston
Jenn and I have been best friends since we met in our freshman year of health class at Lakeview High School. We both wore some fly denim overalls to gym class and made faces at each other across the classroom as we learned basic human anatomy. We went to different colleges, but ended up living together in Chicago, hosting dinner parties, practicing yoga, and caring for each other as we went through the challenges everyone goes through in the years after college. Through our adventures, we became incredibly close, finding comfort and seeking refuge in each other as we navigated new interests and endeavors.
Around the last year of college, I heard my gchat go off at work:
Jenn: “I think I want to start a rowing team for breast cancer survivors.”
Ally: “Really?! That’s an amazing idea!”
Jenn: “I have no idea how to start a business.”
Ally: “YOU CAN DO IT.”
And that’s was how all of this ROW amazingness began. At the time, Jenn had been living in Chicago and coaching St. Ignatius Crew, where she fell in love with teaching and coaching novice rowers.
I am not a member of the ROW team, but in volunteering for the group I have been able to connect with many of the amazing women who are on this team. I was one of the fortunate volunteers who helped plan the first fundraisers and who took photographs at the first water practices on Bubbly Creek. I was able to firsthand see the joy on the founding team members’ faces as they took there first pulls on a boat or because they felt a sense of accomplishment with their newfound love of rowing. Because of my friendship with Jenn, I was also able to experience her sense of accomplishment and joy in providing this opportunity for the women. Many volunteers contribute to ROW’s success, but it is their fearless, headstrong coach, Jenn, who has shared this experience with me.
ROW is the product of committed, passionate people coming together to provide support to a group of individuals that we can all relate to. Everyone knows someone who has battled a form of cancer, or has lost that battle to cancer. People from all over Chicago – and now, the greater Midwest —want to give time, money, in-kind support, or general enthusiasm for the mission. It’s natural that people want to give to this cause—fighting cancer. We want to be supportive of people who are facing their life challenges head-on, and state in the most fearless of voices, “…this is my life.”
When ROW was just an idea, Jenn discovered a breast cancer survivor who was on the hunt for a row team. This woman, Sue Ann, is Co-Founder of ROW and sits on the board. She was the key to the network of survivors that formed the initial team of one or two boats. This group of women, along with a number of volunteers, planned practices indoors and on the river. They helped Jenn plan fundraisers at art galleries and ergathons at gyms. There are the St. Ignatius High School and college student volunteers, who have spent hours assisting and learning from their former coaches, and lifting boats for the ROW women; or who sat with a cancer survivor at her first practice and shared how powerful she felt in the water. This community of people who believe in the mission of ROW have all played a role in the development of this movement.
It wasn’t a surprise when a couple of years ago, my gchat went off again:
Jenn: “Ally, I think I want to row across the ocean.”
This is how this trip around the lake began. Jenn has worked tirelessly to build a team, secure partnerships, seek out mentors, develop a board of leaders, find committed coaches, secure facilities, and fundraise. But even in that whirlwind of activity, Jenn needed yet another incredible challenge and imagined rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. As you all know, the idea evolved into a trip around Lake Michigan, a feat that has not been attempted before. It is also a decision that illuminates the grassroots nature of the Recovery on Water team. When Jenn and the Row4Row team started planning this trip, old friends and volunteers all around the Midwest stepped out to be a part of it. The trip is monumental for her as an athlete and as the leader of ROW.
This is just the beginning of what Recovery on Water will be for survivors. Jenn refuses to let the most challenging of circumstances deter her from finishing this trip. Instead, she looks head-on, and says, “I’ve got this…this is my life.” To all of her friends and supporters: continue to rally, send words of encouragement, and donate. Continue to send those positive vibes so that we can welcome her home soon. I, for one, am thrilled to see what greatness is yet to come from Recovery on Water.
I can hear my gchat now:
Jenn: “So I was thinking…”
Ally: “GO FOR IT!”