A Heavenly Tribute
The tragic deaths of two young women - one in an accident, the other from cancer - has led to the creation of scholarship funds that have raised tens of thousands of dollars to help dozens of children interested in the performing arts. This month, Jim Hummel sits down with each of the girls’ parents, who talk about the tremendous support they have received over the past six years.
Click here for more information about Heavenly Gingers.
Frank O’Donnell has been a professional comedian for more than three decades, appearing in front of hundreds of audiences like this one that gathered at Twin River on a Tuesday evening last month. Being on stage is a natural and comfortable place for O’Donnell.
But this show - an annual event he’s done the past six years - alongside fellow comedian John Morris - had poignant moments and more than a few tears.
That’s because the show - dubbed Heavenly Gingers - is a tribute to Keri Anne O’Donnell, Frank’s daughter who was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 15; and to Morris’s daughter Jessica, who died in 2008 at age 20 from ovarian cancer.
Keri, the youngest of Frank and Karen O’Donnell’s four children, died in July of 2010.
Frank: ``In the fall or so is when we started to think: `You know what, we need to do something to honor these kids.’”
Jessie had died two years before Keri, but Frank and Karen O’Donnell had become very close with her parents, John and Kathie Morris, through Kathie’s dance studio - where both girls had grown up. They viewed themselves as cousins, with a lot of other friends joining in.
Karen: ``It was a family, those kids, between the theater kids and the dance kids, there was a lot of intermixing because they all had the same interests.’’
Frank: ``During the summer of the accident we had some horrific thunderstorms. John and I talked a lot, because John had been there already. We were just joking, because that’s what we do, that the thunderstorms were the girls fighting over who was in charge of the dance studio up there. And that’s where `Heavenly Gingers’ came from. So we had our two gingers fighting, not really fighting, but `No, no, no I’m in charge’ - `No, I’m in charge’ because that’s what both of them exactly would have done. And that’s where it came from.’’
The Heavenly Gingers show, which has became an annual event, funds two separate non-profit organizations: Jessie’s Dream and the Keri Anne O’Donnell Memorial Fund. It has raised tens of thousands of dollars and provided scholarships for dozens of kids to go to camps, workshops or to take lessons in a variety of performing arts they otherwise might not be able to afford.
Jessie loved performing and literally grew up at Kat’s dance studio, now in its 35th year. Jess and her younger sister Kayla, who now teachers with her mother, performed their first dance with Kat when Kayla was 5 and her older sister 9.
Kat: ``Her main thing was dance and this is what she wanted to do…She had all intentions to go down to Disney, do like an exchange Disney dancer down there for awhile. The stage was her thing, but dance was her thing.’’
John: ``She shined brightest on the stage, dancing.’’
Kat: ``The reason we named it Jessie’s Dream is because Jessie never got to follow her dream.’’
At age 18, during her first obstetric examination the doctor discovered Stage 3 ovarian cancer, even though there was no family history. The doctors called it a random mutation of cells.
John: ``Ovarian cancer, the symptoms are very vague and there are no pre-screening tests for ovarian cancer, there was no reason to, she was a healthy, just-about 18-year-old.’’
Jessie died three weeks shy of her 21st birthday.
Like the O’Donnells - who would experience the loss of their own daughter two years later - the Morrises looked for some meaning.
John: ``Something has to come from this. We’re cream on crap, I call it. Something good out of something bad. We’re never going to have a reason, we’re never going to know why.’’
Frank: ``I really do believe that her legacy to us is the show must go on. As corny as that sounds. I really think that is an important message to teach. That you really have to go.’’
So they launched the show as a vehicle to raise money for the two scholarship funds: in the early years virtually everyone knew - or had had contact with - Jess, Keri or both. And that made the first one all the more difficult.
Karen: ``The emotion in the first one was overwhelming for me. It still is, but I think part of it is, the more shows we do, the performers are not the same performers, so a lot of the performers now are doing this in honor of Keri and Jess and they do it for Frank and I and John and Kat but not everybody knew Keri and Jess anymore :’’
Kat: ``They kept Jessie going in the studio and it’s still here. I still have some of Jessie’s very first students from when she started to teach who are in Gingers.’’
Kat credits her younger daughter Kayla, who reopened the studio after Jessie’s death and got her mother to come back as well.
John: ``I think that’s one of the saddest truths of all, is the fact that life does go on, with or without you. Frank and Karen have other children and we have our Kayla and you can’t cheat them out of their lives. Their lives are going to go on too.’’
Frank: ``That was very, very, very, very good. That was great actually…’’
We watched rehearsals in the weeks leading up to this year’s performance. Frank worked with one group of younger performers as they rehearsed a musical number from Shrek…
First at Kat’s studio, then in the dress rehearsal at Twin River. And finally, the performance that Tuesday night, drawing a huge ovation from an appreciative crowd.
Hummel: ``Why is it emotional?’’
Karen: ``Just that we’re there doing it in the first place.’’
Frank: ``We wish we weren’t doing this, but we have to. It’s very bittersweet. It’s very difficult to even get out on that stage. There are moments when we’ll just have to choke back the tears. We are talking about our daughters, who aren’t here anymore and we wish we weren’t talking about our daughters who aren’t here anymore.’’
John: ``You know the scab is always there, Jim. The scab is there and it’s easily picked. At a moment’s notice, or a thought or a song or a dance or, you know, whatever it is that triggers the memory, but she’s never that far away. It’s always raw.’’
And while the pain of parents who have lost children is unfathomable to those who haven’t gone through it, both couples say it has been tremendously gratifying to see their daughters’ legacy live on in so many of the people who support - and benefit from - Heavenly Gingers.
Frank: ``When we see the testimonials that the kids have done and I see them because I tape most of them, but when you see the whole thing put together, you see the impact that it has. And when we pull back the curtain and you see all of those kids. These are the kids who are being impacted by what this show does and what we’ve been able to do in Keri’s name and in Jess’s name.’’
Kat: ``Seeing some of these kids who started at 2 years old who are now 17 and 18 years old and are out there and they’re phenomenal and doing so well. I think of Jess and how proud she’d be of those students and how far they’ve come.’’
Frank: ``Seeing the kids that are impacted by the money that is raised. We go to see a lot of the shows that these kids are in and it truly is amazing not only to see what they’re doing but to have them afterward say `you know what I couldn’t have been here if it weren’t for this.’”
Kat: ``It is a huge feeling that we’re doing something so good for these kids.’’
John: ``It’s affirmation.’’
Kat: ``I’ve worked with kids, I started when I was 14 doing the teaching. I mean kids who have come through, anything to make a kid smile and to get that kid out there; it’s phenomenal, it really is, to watch those kids and listen to what an impact Jessie and Keri technically had - not per se us, but them.’’
In Lincoln, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.