Thursday, February 22, 2018
With the last picture of their family together in the background, Jenny Parker presented an emotional story about the loss of her son and the rise of a community Saturday afternoon at the Lions District 27-D2 Convention in Warrens. Herald photo by Tim Evans

Tears of accomplishment

Community’s grief means clean water for Uganda

Jesse Parker lives on.

That’s the message an emotional Jenny Parker provided Saturday afternoon, speaking at the Lions District 27-D2 Convention at three Bears Lodge in Warrens. Parker is he mother of the 17-year-old Tomah High School youth who lost his life in a devastating Georgia traffic accident on a family vacation to Florida over eight years ago.

“It’s a story about loss and heartache and mostly about community,” Jenny began.

Growing up in LaFarge, where she met her husband Brad, the couple ended up in Tomah about 20 years ago because of Jenny’s work with Ft. McCoy. They stayed and raised their three children, Jesse, Brie (Gabrielle) and Jacob, in the community.

But they found out their life would take a major change on July 3, 2009 when, coming back from a vacation to Florida, their vehicle was hit by vehicle caused by white truck that crossed the center line and, suddenly, they were fighting and praying for the lives of two of their children, their Jesse and a 16-year-old daughter, Brie.

“I went with Brie the ambulance and Brad went with Jesse in another ambulance,” she said.

It wasn’t long before she said she heard the worst words of her life: “Jesse had not survived.”

Later, they were told, Brie, who had 19 bone fractures and a brain hemorrhage, may not survive the night.

“Brad and I were drowning,” she said, “How our sweet boy could be gone. We couldn’t continue to breath while our son could not. The world no longer made sense.”

Brie did make it through the night but was on life-support and survived each day and then,  “Ultimately, started to wake up,” her mom said. When she did, she asked to write something down. “Help me, I’m hungry,” she wrote.

“Those were the best words I’ve ever read,” Jenny said.

Back in the Tomah and Warrens area, friends were quickly putting things back together for the Parkers, even though most didn’t even know where the Parkers were in Georgia. The word eventually got out and, once Brie was released, Craig Culver, president of the Culver’s restaurant chain, flew the family home in his corporate jet. Jesse and Brie had both worked at the Culvers in Tomah. Friend has rearranged their home so changes wouldn’t have to be made once they arrived,” Jenny said.

She said medical personnel at the hospital were extremely helpful but it was the local community that pulled together to help the Parkers put their lives back together.

“The community shared in our loss of our child,” Jenny said, noting her son isn’t remembered as the smartest kid nor the fastest runner but was remembered that “he was kind” and “loved to run.”

“Nobody was a nobody in Jesse’s eyes,” she said.

His dream was to eventually become an engineer, join the Peace Corp, and help people in places like Africa and South America.

So, the community pulled together, coming up with a special annual run that started in Jesse’s name. Last year, 190 volunteers turned out to aid 800 participants from ages one to 88. “It’s a day of healing, sharing,” Jenny said, noting the most important part is a pancake breakfast put on by the Tomah Lions Club, which she said was the first organization in the community to step forward and ask the family if they needed help.

“People give a lot of credit to Brad and I,” she said of the Jesse Parker run, noting it was the community that came up with the idea. “We’re humbled by what the Tomah and Warrens communities have done for us,” she said.

The race has helped provide 5,100 pounds of food for the local food pantry and has raised more than $300,000 for things like cribs and baby seats as well as clean water for African citizens.  She said for every

“The Lions make it all happen,” she said, noting the local club has produced an estimated 15,000 pancakes for run goers, who take the time before the race to share their stories about Jesse, grieve and heal themselves.

She said some volunteers never even knew her son. “They tell me all the time: I don’t know how you can fall in love with a boy never met, but we do,” she said.

Jenny said her son was also an organ donor, something she said was important to him. She said many of his organs went to patients and noted, “It’s a lucky person who gets to see through Jesse’s eyes.”

The Lions, dubbed Knights of the Blind by Helen Keller, provide eye tissue transports and eye glasses to children in third world countries, something Jenny said she would try to use to help her mission in Africa.

Through friends, she’s located a Catholic mission in Uganda which has taken the Parker story to heart and has benefited greatly from community events that have now meant the construction of 45 wells in the area, meaning young girls who should be in school no longer have to spend the day carrying water for their families. She said the wells are now being built next to schools so girls can be educated.

She said the program has grown beyond expectations, noting when the program started for the mission, she felt one well would really make a difference. Then, the goal was to be able to provide water for as many people as there were in Tomah. Today, 120,000 benefit from clean water wells developed thanks to Tomah benefits that also includes a “Wine into Water” fundraiser put together by the Tomah Rotary Club.

She said a visit by the family to the Uganda community was uplifting, noting there’s even a well named after their son and young children show their friendship by offering gifts and words of thanks. She said one young man knelt before them on their visit. Jenny said she didn’t know what was going on until the guide explained, “he’s thanking you for giving his people water.”

Her youngest son, Jacob, has now stared a soccer ball and backpack campaign for children in Uganda. Jenny said many of the youngsters think they need to give them back because “they’ve never been given a gift.”.

She said the water campaign is vital to the life of children in third world countries, noting a child dies every nine seconds because of a lack of clean water.

“It’s amazing what a different this community has made,” she said, noting her son lives on through the Remembering Jesse Parker Inc. Foundation.

“A catholic nun shared these words,” Jenny said in finalizing her talk. “There are losses in life for which there are no answers, but God provides us with answering people.”

“Truly the loss of our son is a loss for which we have no answers . . . yet our family has experienced so many answering people throughout the Tomah community, his coaches, teachers, friends, business sponsors, Lions club members … and community leaders who have mourned our loss and shared our hope.”

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