How do you help a kindergarten class understand cancer? How do you support 20 little children as they watch their friend get sicker and sicker? Where is God in all this?
“It was the week before school started… when they found out Evie’s neuroblastoma had come back at a routine scan,” says Jenny Allen, who teaches kindy at Penrith Christian School. “She had lesions in her brain and they needed to operate.”
Prior to teaching, Ms Allen – who attends Springwood Anglican – was an oncology nurse for seven years. She believes God used this to prepare her to help Evie, who had been battling neuroblastoma since she was two.
“In heaven she was going to get a new body and she wouldn’t be sick”
“I remember they had a nurse come from the children’s hospital to show the preschool teacher how to deal with the central line still attached… We did that everyday on the ward,” she says. “I was standing there thinking that this was God’s plan… it was very familiar even though it was heartbreaking. It prepared me to deal with that for these little people.”
A lot of work went into teaching students that, while Evie was unwell, she was just a normal little girl. “We had kids’ cancer puppets come to help the other children understand that even though she didn’t have hair, it wasn’t contagious,” Ms Allen says. “She was just one of the children, which was lovely.”
When Evie’s neuroblastoma returned, she needed brain surgery.
“The little ones in the class were asking, ‘Where’s Evie?” Ms Allen recalls. “They knew who was meant to be in their class, and so the first few days were strange. They were excited about starting but they felt the class wasn’t complete [without her].
“When Evie did return, she had to wear a helmet to protect her brain as she was missing part of her skull. She didn’t like it – it was obviously different – so she wore a scarf over the top of her helmet. So, in consultation with Evie’s mum… [she] suggested we get the other children to wear scarves. And they did. These were five-year-old children who just wanted to include their beautiful friend. It was a really lovely opportunity for these children to get alongside their friend.”
The progression of Evie’s cancer was quite rapid towards the end. “One day she was reading and writing, and the next day she was very challenged in even trying to be at school for shorter periods of time.” To ensure Evie didn’t miss out on anything, Ms Allen found ways of including her with video calls from the class. She even held the Christmas party early so Evie could be there. But they knew time was running out.
Preparing to farewell a friend
“We sat down with the children and talked to them about the fact that their friend wouldn’t return to school for the rest of the year, and what next year might look like,” Ms Allen says. “We didn’t even know [what next year would look like]; we were all still praying. The children would pray that Evie would get better… They would often pray she could play on the playground like everybody else, or that she could come to school again.”
“They just knew that it was time for her body to rest…”
“I was surprised about... how open the children were. They weren’t scared. This was all in God’s strength. Talking to five- and six-year-olds, the questions could have come thick and fast. But they had grown up with this friend, they had known her from preschool. Her body was sick, and they just knew that it was time for her body to rest.
“I know without a doubt God was supporting myself and those children. [Evie’s cancer] was part of their life, they knew Evie wasn’t well and they knew it was about her body. Evie was always so happy and had such a vibrant personality. They were very grateful that they saw her at her best and also when she was sick.”
Evie passed away just before Christmas three years ago, surrounded by family. The school hosted a memorial service in the auditorium in her honour.
“We ended up having the children from kindergarten sing a song that we used to sing all the time [in class] called ‘My Lighthouse’ by Rend Collective... Evie loved that song,” Ms Allen says through tears. “They were the bravest kids. It was their way of celebrating their friend.
“They knew she had been given a new body. That’s how we talked about it. In heaven she was going to get a new body and she wouldn’t be sick. She would live eternally. It was still hard for them. They felt sad and missed their friend, but I think because we had talked openly they knew what death for them meant. It’s sad that we don’t get to see those people any more, but they’re with their heavenly Father and what more can they ask for?
“That certainly made the transition easier for them, knowing they were saying goodbye to their friend, but their friend was going to have no more pain or suffering. Evie wouldn’t have to wear a helmet in heaven.”
Reflecting on many moments during that time, Ms Allen knows it was God who sustained her.
“I think it was through prayer and just knowing that he had my back and he was working through me to support those children,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it on my own. I would be at work, and I wouldn’t even think twice about what I said. Afterwards I would think, ‘How did I not break down in tears? How did I know what to say?’ I am so sure that was in God’s strength.”
Since supporting Evie’s family through the death of their daughter, Ms Allen has continued to find ways to care for families in similar situations through volunteering and fundraising.
Before COVID restrictions she donated her time at The Children’s Hospital Westmead, sitting with unwell babies and children and giving exhausted parents a chance to shower or eat dinner.
“God gave me the opportunity to work and support [Evie’s] family and walk that journey,” she says. “I felt like, if I can give back then that’s what I should be doing. I would go from ward to ward to see who needed me, I would pray for those children, and their families, while I was with them. It’s something I really miss.”
“I don’t think I’m anything special. It’s God. He places us in the right places.”
Ms Allen has also committed to several fundraising activities to support two key organisations: The Kids’ Cancer Project, focused on finding cures for children’s cancer, and Neuroblastoma Australia, which supports families specifically with this type of cancer.
She originally signed up to do a 10-kilometre run as part of the Run2Cure weekend, but found herself hiking the Six Foot Track instead.
“I thought, ‘That’s 46 kilometres, I’m not sure… I don’t know whether I can do this’. But I thought, this is another God opportunity. He’s saying ‘Trust me’. I thought this could raise even more money by doing something beyond the five or 10-kilometre walk, so I decided to do it and raised more money than I had previously.”
As Ms Allen reflects on the direction her life has taken, and the events that have unfolded, she confidently trusts God’s timing and strength as she continues to use her nursing and other experiences to offer support to school families and others who need it.
“I can see that God’s plan is continual for a purpose, and more than ever I have started to trust that,” she says. “Some things might be hard or difficult, yet it is all part of God’s plan. I used to question it and be quite angry about it, but now I feel it’s okay to feel those emotions, and feel sad, confused, worried or defeated. It’s going, ‘This is a season for this moment’.
“I know God has a better plan. I don’t think I'm anything special. It’s God. He places us in the right places.”