Written by Victoria Van Vlear
There are stories of hardship, loss and hope that leave you speechless, and this is one of them. On June 30, 2020, Jen and Shane Bridges lost their two-year-old son Julian to cancer. They had just finished renovating their farmhouse so Julian could grow up as a farm kid, but now they had a farm with no kid. So instead, they turned their farmhouse into a getaway destination for other families that have kids with cancer.
Becoming a Family with a Son in Treatment
"Julian was a surprise baby," Jen says. "I was traveling to Ethiopia for our ministry, but we just said that we were going to make the best of it, and of course we fell in love with him." Jen is the founder of Embrace Compassion, a non-profit organization that supports children in Ethiopia, allowing them to stay in school and providing pediatric medical supplies.
"Julian made two trips with me to Ethiopia," Jen says. "The second was at 20 months, and he wasn’t recovering well from the trip. We took him in to the pediatrician, and were finally referred to the children's hospital." Julian was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer at 21 months old. The Bridges had joined the club you hope you're never part of—families that have kids with cancer.
Farmhouse to Fix
At the same time, there was the farmhouse. "We’d just taken possession of the farmhouse in June, and Julian was diagnosed in October," Jen says. They were planning a full renovation for the 100-year-old structure, which was a tiny, 1,000-square-foot farmhouse on 2.5 acres of land outside Portland, Oregon. "We had originally thought, why not just keep this land and enjoy this little bitty farmhouse and let Julian enjoy the farm life?" They hadn't known that only months later, the diagnosis would upend their lives.
"The current structure was so bad," Jen says. "It usually takes us 90 days to do the whole demo and renovation, but it took us 90 days just to demo. Julian was in the hospital for 53 of the first 60 days. So all of a sudden, we were in the hospital with a super sick kid, the farmhouse torn up and we were living out of a travel trailer."
"We didn’t finish the farmhouse until December of 2019," Jen says. "We got in three days before Christmas so Julian could have one Christmas with us at the farm." Meanwhile, they were enduring a brutal 8-month battle as a family with kids with cancer. "It’s like torturing your child," Jen says. After 8 months, Julian passed away on June 30, 2020.
The whole reason the Bridges had moved to, and renovated, the farm, was to provide Julian with a farm style childhood. "Then Julian died, and here we had this beautiful little farm and animals, and how can you just walk away from that?" Jen says.
The answer was to combine her passion for Embrace Compassion with her story of kids with cancer and child loss. "I went to the board of Embrace Compassion and asked to add on to our ministry," Jen says. "We help kids in hard places in Ethiopia, and these are also kids in hard places here."
The farm, called Pearl Street Urban Farm, has become a weekend destination for families that have kids with cancer. "When you’re in treatment, it’s like Covid but it doesn’t go away," Jen says. "You can’t go to a regular farm because it’s not safe, but this one is because we’re aware. The families come visit for an hour and a half on Saturdays. Kids in treatment get tired really fast, so that’s all they can handle."
Enjoying Normal Life for Kids with Cancer
The farm has become a place for kids with cancer, their parents and their siblings, to enjoy normal life for a little while. "Julian loved everything farm and outdoors, and we wanted to share that," Jen says. "For whatever is safe for [the kids with cancer] to do, they’re allowed to do. We’ll show them how to pick up the chicken eggs, check on the goats, take the pigs on a walk on a leash, whatever it is they can do."
They planted a community garden for the families and volunteers, and the families can participate in helping to grow and harvest the food. "They get a Brighter Box, and get hand-picked items they can take home with them. A highlight for most of the kids is Julian’s playground. We have a big bubble machine we pull out."
Giving Back in Grief
For Jen, sharing her farm has been part of the healing process. "I really believe that finding purpose is a big part of working through grief," she says. "When we first lost Julian, I volunteered at a soup kitchen. For me, to continue to show kindness and choosing purpose is part of the process. It doesn’t make sense that kids die and get sick, so being able to trust God and know that he’s in the journey with us is comforting."
"The word 'and' is my favorite because I believe that life is filled with hard stuff, AND, at the same time, there’s beauty and hope and encouragement. They’re not exclusive, we can embrace that hope for the future. The farmhouse is an AND, allowing those two to coexist at the same time."
Bringing hope and fun to other families who have kids with cancer has allowed Jen and Shane to give back. "A lot of these kids are going to die, so the farm is a safe place for the kids to not feel alone and the families to be welcome," she says. "For us, after Julian died, we left the hospital. But at the farm, if a child dies, those families are always welcome."
For another inspiring story of beauty in the midst of grief, read Janice Morrow's story here. Of course, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest to get your daily dose of farmhouse inspiration!
Victoria is the editorial director of American Farmhouse Style. She shapes the editorial direction of the brand, both through the physical magazine and digitally on the brand’s website and social media platforms. As a home décor enthusiast and DIYer herself, she knows what a little paint and patience can do for a room! Victoria is also a wife and mom to three little ones: two on earth and one in heaven. With any (not so spare) time, she devours book and dabbles in fiction writing. You can follow her on Instagram @victoriavanvlear