ATLANTA – Birthdays are Jenna Sullivan’s chance to celebrate the day she was born, but also to honor her mom’s strength and sheer determination.
The 7-year-old’s parents said that they want their three kids to have it all. But when it came to toys, it became too much.
“Holidays and birthdays get crazy with the amount of gifts, and there's just no need for it. We don't need it," Sullivan admitted.
Her parents, Karin and Mike decided that they wanted to guide their kids with a new rule.
“We were going to dedicate every birthday to a charity; and whosoever birthday it is, they get to pick the charity," Karin said.
While she came up with the idea, her husband, Mike, agreed, they still had to convince their kids that this was the right thing to do.
“There was a lot of whining at first. I think they were incredulous at first, that something like this could happen to their holiday. Jenna was not happy about being the first one to do it,” Karin remembered.
“Hey, don't mess with the momma,” Jenna said, referring to herself as momma.
But eventually, she came around.
“I thought about it, and I thought, 'Nope, maybe I should give up all my gifts!’ Because it's nice.”
Then, she had to decide which organization she wanted to work with.
"We talked about a few organizations. She really wasn't into it. But when I said children's cancer hospital, she went all in. It was instantaneous," Karin said. “I was very relieved and very proud … and I didn't ask why. It didn't matter.”
What did matter was the party.
Jenna spent her seventh birthday at the community pool and her friends and family brought a slew of gifts that usually go Jenna's way. But today, the gifts for Jenna are going somewhere else.
Toward the end of the party, a friend asked Karin the question she never asked Jenna, “Why?”
Haley, Jenna’s 9-year-old sister overheard and jumped into the conversation.
“Mom, I know why,” she revealed. “It's because you had cancer.”
Karin had triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive cancer that required aggressive treatment.
“When someone's diagnosed with cancer, the first thing you think is, ‘I'm going to die,’” Karin said.
Jenna remembered that time all too well.
“She had cancer… I was sad and I really missed her,” she said.
In a fight that could amplify her fears, Karin chose to set an example of strength for her family.
“I had to teach them that I wasn't afraid to go around bald, and it was nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “That actually I was spreading a good message that it was empowering and strong. I wanted them to feel empowered and strong so that hopefully they'd be able to handle something like that if it happened to them.”
Two years later, Jenna’s mom is cancer-free, so she decided to donate to those still fighting.
“She picked out everything that she loved for the kids, and never said, ‘I want this for myself.’ It was amazing.”
At the end of the birthday party, the family took four boxes full of gifts to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite, who then took the gifts to Aflac Cancer Center for distribution.
Karin Sullivan had hoped her children would follow her rule. But, Jenna didn’t just follow the rule, she followed her example, by setting her own.
“We want to raise children that are appreciative and giving and loving and kind, and hopefully we're doing that,” Karin said.