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Effingham Magazine

Jenny Wilkins: CURE Childhood Cancer

Apr 05, 2021 09:07AM ● By Story by Cindy Reid | Photos by Tonya Perry

Jenny Wilkins and her husband Tre’ were first introduced to CURE Childhood Cancer in 2003 when their daughter Catie was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma—an aggressive brain tumor—on her first birthday. Catie fearlessly fought her battle with cancer, but the chemotherapy compromised her immune system so severely that she succumbed to a common virus before she reached her 5th birthday.

Tre’s first cousin Bailey had the same cancer that Catie had, and although they were born years apart, they both had the same treatment, including medicine that was new in the 1940s and 1950s.

“We were both astounded and angry—something should have changed in the intervening years,” Jenny says. “After she died, Tre’ looked at me and said, ‘we have to do something,’ but it has to be for all kids with childhood cancers, not just those affected by brain tumors.”

Shortly after Catie’s death in 2007, the Wilkins started Catie’s Fund in her memory and started working to raise money for research. Jenny went back to work as an elementary literacy specialist at Effingham County Schools but continued to grow Catie’s Fund through its signature event, Catie’s Gathering.

Catie’s Gathering

“Catie’s Gathering started as a simple dinner the first year, but God has really blessed it to grow,” says Jenny. “The dinners grew so big I joined the CURE Childhood Cancer staff in 2018 as a Special Events Manager to continue that work and expand Catie’s Gathering to other communities.”

For this fun evening, hosts/hostesses purchase a table, invite their friends, and decorate their themed table.

“The whole event started out plain Jane and low key and now you walk in the venue and it looks like Pinterest exploded! Our hostesses work so hard because they are invested and believe in the work we do,” says Jenny.

During the event, guests experience music, a raffle, a silent auction, and a moving program about battles kids with pediatric cancer are fighting every day.

“We balance the harsh realities of childhood cancer with having a wonderful time,” says Jenny.

Catie’s Gathering has grown from one to four separate events in southeast Georgia. Last year alone, more than 2,200 people attended the dinners, which raised more than $340,000. To date, Catie’s Fund has raised more than $2.2 million.

Research & Funding

As Special Events Manager, Jenny’s goal is to create events that inform the community of the need for funding research for childhood cancers and to raise money for that necessary research.

“Working at a nonprofit means I wear lots of hats, but my primary focus is managing and expanding Catie’s Gatherings as a fundraiser for research.” She explains, “Childhood cancer is woefully underfunded, less than 4% of the national budget for cancer research is spent on childhood cancers. Childhood cancer is the Number One disease killer of children. The only thing more fatal is accidents. The funding does not match the scope of the problem.”

At CURE, the focus is only on the children and the many different cancers and varieties that affect them.

“Progress is measured in the gift of time for some of our children and their families,” says Jenny. “The stories are so hard, because in many cases we are so close and we want kids to live. But extra years can feel like baby steps. To be involved with research one has to be very patient—which is easy to say but when it’s your kid it feels like forever. “

Hit by the Pandemic

Jenny says the pandemic affected CURE fundraisers as venues were closed and people were unable to gather. They did the best they could, but the numbers were down.

“We were able to get two ‘in person’ dinners in at the beginning of the year,” says Jenny. “After the shutdown we held one of our Catie’s Gathering events virtually and one was canceled.”

The events were held virtually again this year, and Jenny says people who aren’t attending virtually can always donate and bid on the silent auction items. “Last year we had three dinners, not the usual four. We are only hosting three this year as well. And also, people are struggling financially so they are less able to contribute.”

And it’s not just the fundraisers, Jenny says the pace of research has been negatively affected as labs and research facilities responded to the pandemic by shutting down as necessary.

Getting Back on Track

Jenny says as life gets back to normal, she hopes to expand Catie’s Gatherings in southwest Georgia because it works best in the type of small town communities which populate that area.

“In a small town most folks know people personally who have been affected,” says Jenny. “These dinners work because of communities. Most of us can’t write a $10,000 check, but if 800 people can each contribute $25, together we can give $20,000. Silent auction items are always needed and appreciated as well. Call or email me for information, I would love to talk to anyone interested.”

Catie’s Legacy

Catie has been gone for 14 years and would have been 19 years old this September. Jenny says people shouldn’t shy away from talking with families about the children they have lost.

“We are never not reminded of our loss and it is okay to talk about them. For the surviving family it is a gift to ask about their loved ones.”

In addition to Catie, Jenny and Tre’ have two other children—Izzy, their 14 year old daughter, and Chip, their 12 year old son, who both attend South Effingham Middle School.

“I’m a teacher and thought I would do that for my whole life. Now I am a special Events Manager for CURE because Catie changed everything about our world. Medical research is not a fast thing, but I believe with all my heart there will be better treatments for my grandchildren because everyday people are doing what they can to help solve a big problem.”