Every Saturday, children affected by pediatric cancer and their families gather at a small farm in Sherwood, Oregon. On Sundays, local community members come together to do farm maintenance and help make the farm experiences possible for kids in treatment. The farm provides an opportunity for families to take a break from trauma, safely play and simply enjoy being kids.
And it’s all because of a little boy named Julian.
When Julian was a baby, his family relocated to a farmhouse in Sherwood and began renovations. A month later, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and began treatment at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. He went through eight months of difficult treatment before he passed away last June.
Simply put, cancer treatment can be awful for kids and families alike. But Julian’s mom, Jen, remembers some of the moments and people who reminded her of the humanity in it all – staff wearing red shoes (Julian’s favorite), conversations with nurse Julie Casey and a “choo choo” ride on a stretcher en route to get a scan (with Robert Christian in Concierge Services playing conductor), just to name a few.
Her family’s experience was made even more challenging by the fact that their home was incomplete.
“We were in the hospital with our house completely torn up and we were going home to a travel trailer,” Jen said. “While Julian was really sick, our community and friends came alongside of us and helped create this respite space, a little sanctuary.”
As she was grieving, Jen envisioned a larger purpose for their two and a half acres.
“After Julian’s death, I asked myself, ‘Who am I now? What am I going to do with all of this?’” Jen said. “You’re just not the same person when it’s all done.”
Jen had founded a non-profit called Embrace Compassion in 2010 and, with the support of her board, decided to expand their programming. The group partners with a rural village in the western Oromia region of Ethiopia. With international travel limited due to COVID-19, the Embrace Compassion team jumped into action to encourage and give hope to children in hard places right here in Oregon.
“We expanded on what Embrace Compassion does by allowing kids to come here to the farm,” Jen said. “We invite families who are in treatment to come once a month and to walk through Julian’s garden, collect eggs, feed the goats and enjoy a picnic lunch.”
When they leave, the farm experience doesn’t end. Families go home with a “Brighter Box” full of food they harvested, activities to do at home and meaningful surprises for parents and caregivers.
On Sundays, volunteer farmhands are welcome to pitch in at the farm and get to know one another. And this summer, Embrace Compassion is hosting a 13-week GriefShare child loss bereavement group.
“Our goal is that families will feel a connection and feel like they’re part of a community, even after their child dies,” Jen said. “Authentic relationship is birthed out of a sense of being together, and the farm allows us to be supportive in a grassroot, authentic way.”
Jen believes we have a long way to go to improve the way we process grief and how we handle bereavement.
“After we lost our little boy, we found it very difficult to connect with other parents who had been through what we had been through,” she said. “We hope to offer a judgment-free and safe place to talk about our little people we have loved who have died.”
There are many ways to get involved with Embrace Compassion, and Jen wants families to know they are welcome to sign up for a farm experience. Family nominations are also welcomed, as are volunteer applications and donations.