Rock of Ages: a higher power at work

The show held on June 24 in Exeter added support to the opertional needs of Jesica’s House, a new hospice serving Huron and Perth counties.

By Amanda Jackman

The stage was set as over 600 people, some carrying comfy lawn chairs, poured into the Exeter Rodeo Arena. The atmosphere was casual and friendly as people’s hands were stamped with orange smiley faces upon arrival. The good spirits, despite the gloomy weather, was thanks in-part to the upcoming concert, featuring some good old gospel songs. However, looking around the stadium at the all-ages crowd, it was easy to see there was much more at work than music.

The show, Rock of Ages, held on June 24, featured three tribute artists in support of Jessica’s House, a much-needed residential hospice serving South Huron and community.

Pictured right to left: performers Marie Bottrell as Dolly Parton, John Heaman as little Jimmy Dickens, and Rev. Matthew Martin, as Elvis Presley. The trio dazzled audiences with spiritual hymns and gospel songs at the Exeter Rodeo Arena in June.

While driving through Exeter it was evident the community was one-hundred percent behind the new hospice. The town was covered in yellow and blue ribbons, commemorating Jessica Hamather, a well-loved young woman, and the inspiration for the hospice campaign, who lost her battle with cancer at the age of 22.

In 2015, at the end of her life, Jessica and her family were squeezed into a drab hospital room, dark and depressing, with not even enough room for her mom to squeeze on the narrow bed with her, or for her whole family to visit her at once.

For large rural families a small room in a distant city hospital is not the ideal situation to care for someone at the end of their life. Something needed to be done. And the little, but incredibly strong and tight-knit town of Exeter, along with surrounding communities, made Jessica’s House a reality in record time.

“We just had our first family arrive to the hospice,” says Kimberley Payne, Executive Director of the South Huron Hospital Foundation, the organization responsible for helping to raise money for Jessica’s House. “The Music Weekend in June was critical in raising funds for operations.”

Several years ago, the foundation asked what else they could be doing to support the medical needs of the community.

“It was resoundingly clear we needed a palliative care solution in Huron and Perth, especially after Jessica’s experience. The whole community was rocked by her loss,” says Payne.

The politics around the getting a hospice was tricky for this geographical location. Eventually the decision was made to develop it using community resources and funds, not the typical process through the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

“There was a magic around Jessica’s House,” says Payne. “We received just over 3.4 million in cash pledges alone. The idea was conceived in January 2016 and the building opened two years later. I’ve been in this business a long time and have never seen anything move so fast.”

The hospice moved at a lightning pace because of the community response − towns, families, businesses and individuals stepped up to help. “We were getting phone calls from people all the time saying, we are holding this fundraiser or that fundraiser, people donating their time, materials, you name it,” states Payne. “Everyone was all in! Everyone wanted to work on this project.”

Jessica’s House was very thoughtfully designed. The barrier-free hospice features three separate patient rooms, a quiet meeting space, a fully equipped kitchen, lift chairs, in-floor heating, patio doors that open wide enough for a bed to roll onto the porch, a smart TV enabling technology so families can easily connect with others long distance, and lush gardens. In fact, the building has exceeded all the required standards by Hospice Palliative Care Ontario.

“There was fierce pride and passion that went into this build. It’s such an amazing gift from the community. I really feel there was a higher power at work here. There was so much participation and joy,” says Payne.

With the building complete, the Jessica’s House Music Weekend focused on raising funds to operate the facility, and Rock of Ages delivered on their promise of an entertaining time, spearheaded by Canada’s Country Hall of Fame and Juno nominee Marie Bottrell. Bottrell came to the plate with her spectacular talent and ability to pull together an impressive show.

“It’s so impactful to lose someone so special in a small community,” says Bottrell. “I was happy to be a part of supporting the cause.” Bottrell not only brought her own tribute performances of Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette to the stage but she also brought along back-up singers, a full band, John Heaman, as little Jimmy Dickens, and Rev. Matthew Martin, as Elvis Presley.

Martin, a priest in the Diocese of Huron, is very familiar with the needs around palliative care.

“If possible, the end of life should be serene and accommodating. All too often I see cramped quarters, lack of privacy, and even lack of dignity for those who are dying. It’s already so difficult on the individual and their loved ones. Ensuring a place of peace can really change their whole experience, and help them to feel comfort on earth before they move into the comfort of God”, says Rev. Martin.

Bottrell was tickled by the outcome of the concert. “It was lovely to see such a large and supportive audience. I’m over the moon with how it went. It took a really good team of players to make it come together.”

It was quite fitting to have Rock of Ages focused on gospel music. The raising of Jessica’s House was a purely emotional experience that seemed to move with a power and grace that intertwined a community as they rallied around a special woman and an important cause.

Amanda Jackman is the Volunteer Communication Coordinator at Holy Trinity Parish, Lucan.