YORKTOWN, N.Y. – In 2014, the Mahopac and Yorktown communities were stunned by the sudden loss of 14-year-old Jenna Nolan, who died swimming in Lake Mahopac. While such a tragedy is difficult for most adults to make sense of, the children in Jenna’s life were also shocked.
Jenna’s mother, Cathy Nolan, was not only struck by the death of her daughter, but the pain of seeing her son, John, who was just 10 years old at the time, struggle with the loss.
“Everybody kind of rallies around the parents, but really the kids are at the most tragic loss because they kind of get lost in the shuffle,” Nolan said.
At a loss for what to do or say, two classmates who knew Jenna and John filled a backpack with John’s favorite snacks and brought it to him. The small show of support “made all the difference in the world,” Nolan said.
“It changed his life in that moment,” she added.
Three years later, Jenna’s absence still doesn’t make sense; however; the young people whose lives were touched continue to create something meaningful in Jenna’s name, and it started with a backpack.
Under the guidance of Nolan and Lana Bernardi, a parent of one of the boys who made the first pack, the JennaJackPack Project (JJPP) was born.
Founded in memory of Jenna and Jack, a 14-year-old boy from Bedford who died from a brain tumor in 2012, the project gives children the opportunity to collect and gift small tokens of support to a child who needs it. The core elements of each pack include a courage stone, a pillow or blanket, a journal, a pen and candy. In the last year, Nolan said, the project has donated 22 packs. Each pack is a little different depending on the age, favorite color and snack preferences of the child, and includes some extras such as crayons and coloring books and other small items.
Nolan said the hope is that the familiar and fun treats provide children grades K-8 with some semblance of comfort during a time when their world is flipped upside down. Additionally, children are encouraged to support and care for others.
“The kids just feel like they need to do something,” Nolan said. “So we thought, ‘What better way to let kids show their concern and empathy for someone during that time?’”
Participating schools let children come up with creative expressions of the project. Mahopac Middle School incorporated the project into other kindness initiatives. Schools in Carmel and Westchester have also participated. Recently, Yorktown students got involved as well.
Jenna’s former soccer team, the Yorktown Fusion, brings girls from several area schools together to play together under the auspices of the Yorktown Youth Soccer Club. The Yorktown High School students on the team partnered with Mildred E. Strang Middle School students for a special addition to the project.
“They are an amazing group of girls, who still play tournament games in honor of Jenna, in which they all wear her number, 10,” Nolan said.
Yorktown High School senior Kimberly Bourgeois said that when Jenna joined the team, she instantly “clicked” with the rest of the girls. She added that she’s never belonged to a team where the members were so close, even though they all attend different schools.
“We’ve always been really good friends with Jenna and when we heard the news that she passed it was absolutely horrifying,” Bourgeois said.
Now, by wearing her number and participating in the JJPP, Bourgeois said, they still feel close to Jenna.
“To be able to help out with this really means a lot to all of us, especially since a lot of us are going off to college next year,” she said.
The team set up a booth at the middle school for a week in May, where middle school students wrote messages such as “stay strong,” and “keep your head up.” The high school students then printed the messages on buttons to be attached to the backpacks that will eventually be distributed through JJPP.
By the end of the week, they made 50 buttons, Nolan said. The middle school students also collected items for the backpacks, which are valued collectively at $229 dollars and the faculty and staff of the middle school raised $220 in funds, which they donated to JJPP.
“I think it’s really important to have the younger people help out,” Bourgeois said. “Their slogan is ‘kids caring for kids;’ It helps to know that people your age will look out for you.”
For more information, visit jennajackpack.org.