Looking Back, Looking Ahead: The Humble Beginnings of ROW

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.”
Ally: “WHAAAAAT?!”

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!”

5 comments on “Looking Back, Looking Ahead: The Humble Beginnings of ROW

  1. What a wonderful friendship and partnership. Jenn just energized the heck out of me and I’ll be 70 in a couple weeks. Went out and sold 104 luminary bags for our Delta Co Cancer Alliance liuminary walk tonight…. Intended to try for 60. THEN I’d come on facebook and see what she did that day. Geez, I couldn’t quit. haaa. KEEP ROWING JENN. Keep up the good work. Prayers for you and the women you help. Hope to meet up with you again sometime. Amber-Escanaba, Mi

  2. It is important, to me at least, to note that SueAnn was not looking for a rowing crew to join;she wanted to create a team for breast cancer women. It was a wonderful coincidence that she and Jenn were working toward the same goal at the same time, and someone they had both contacted but them in touch with one another. I was a part of ROW in that first year because my friend SueAnn asked me to participate and I wanted to support her, not just in her recovery but in her goal to change her lifestyle to include exercise and he goal to provide the team environment for other.

  3. I read about your accomplishments this morning and also the dreadful situation in which you battled through to complete your goal. You are an inspiration to all. I am going to show the article to my 13 year old daughter this evening to show what strong women can achieve.

    Thank you, you are wonderful.


  4. This lady is so very special,,i think she could teach alot of us,,about life and to do what she has done,inspires me,,and the fact that she was assaulted ,i hope like hell they catch the men that was at fault,,Jenny Best of luck in everything you do!!!!!!! Tracy