By Elaine Van Develde
She’s a Fair Havenite. She’s a neighbor. She’s a friend. She’s a baker. She’s a teacher. She’s a wife. She’s a mom. And right now, she’s a warrior.
That’s how friends and Fair Havenites A.J. and Michele Sandone described Jen Andres, a quietly undaunted 46-year-old mother of two young girls, teacher and wife to Rich. Jen is part of their family in more ways than one and facing a battle she plans on winning with an aggressive form of breast cancer.
It’s a story of strength, ties with a twist of family and community fate peppered with lots of love. That love manifested itself in a fundraiser for Jen on Saturday that started out as a small gesture of hope and help and ended up painting a much bigger picture of a community family coming together for a cause.
The cancer caught Jen Andres by grim surprise. Yet, being foisted into dealing with the diagnosis soon became paled by generosity of spirit and support. And the support took on a life of its own, breathing more tenacity into Jen than her friends say she already had. And that’s an awful lot, according to them. The cancer was an unwitting adversary from the start, but it became an even more conquerable one.
This is how her story started, took a few ironic turns, and ended at the same spot — home — with homegrown hope, strength and love to boot …
Jen got blindsided with her diagnosis around the holidays after a routine visit to the doctor, the coincidental discovery of what seemed to be nothing to worry about and some follow-up tests that were initially designed to just rule out anything bad.
“Even the doctor thought nothing of it,” Michele Sandone said. “Jen wasn’t worried. Then the biopsy results came back. They showed that she not only had cancer, but what is called triple negative breast cancer. It’s a very aggressive form that is not hormonally related. So, the only treatments are chemo(therapy) and radiation.”
The good news, if there is to be any good news about cancer, is that it was caught at stage 2, because Jen ironically kept an appointment that she nearly canceled. But, since the cancer is an aggressive form, Jen has already gone through four heavy duty rounds of chemo. She has 12 more to go, then surgery.
In spite of a bout with pneumonia and the fourth round of chemo following a hospital stay, she, the undaunted warrior her friends know her to be, rallied to attend the fundraiser.
She was glowing with gratitude as she was embraced at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Fair Haven by a full house of hope, strength and love — the theme of what was dubbed Team Andres: Party with a Purpose.
“Wow!” she said, modestly soaking it all in. “This is just amazing. I am so thankful.”
But, her friends, family and children are thankful, too — thankful for her. And they’re all thankful for the coincidental twist of fate that brought them to Fair Haven and made it their home — nestled into a community family of virtual strangers who are strangers no more.
On the subject of family matters, the little piece of irony in this story is about a genetic link that ended in a small town with strangers with no common DNA pitching in for the cause — because that’s what families do.
Why did the Sandones end up spearheading the fundraiser for this woman who lives around the corner from them? Well, they’re cousins — sort of.
Rich, Jen’s husband is A.J.’s second cousin. It’s complicated and simple at the same time.
“My dad and his mother are cousins,” A.J. said. “My grandmother and his grandmother are sisters. We would see one another once or twice a year — or more like at weddings and funerals. Then one day in 2010, knowing he and Jen lived somewhere near Red Bank, we ended up here in Fair Haven looking at a house to rent on Church Street. I called and said, ‘Hey, are you close to Fair Haven?’ He said, ‘Close? I’m IN Fair Haven!”
The two joked that they couldn’t get much closer than the few blocks from there to Rich and Jen’s house — until they did. They ended up living about a block away from one another after the Sandones left the rental behind to buy their own home a block away.
“We were so close, I could see his front porch light from my back yard,” A.J. said. “Then we joined the Knights of Columbus together in November to contribute to the community, went to the Christmas party there in December and ended up organizing this party. It’s crazy.”
And it’s a good kind of crazy for A.J. and Michele and Rich and Jen and everyone else they now think of as family — the best kind, they said.
All were amazed at how their loose family connection took them on a journey to this close bond in a tight-knit community. Here they are, working their way through a tough time with the support of a tiny town far from where they started out as somewhat distant relatives.
“It’s so ironic how things turn out sometimes,” A.J. said. “I just can’t stress how amazing the people of this town have been. This started out as just a small way for us to show support and it just took off. The donations came rolling in and person after person, many of whom don’t even know Jen, just couldn’t offer enough help. Everyone really rallied to help a fellow neighbor. And that’s what it’s all about” at home in Fair Haven.
About Jen Andres and how you can help
Jen was a substitute teacher in the Rumson and Fair Haven school districts for the past couple of years. She now works in the Red Bank schools as a teacher aid in special education classes.
Before the doors had even opened at the Knights on Saturday, thousands of dollars had already been raised to help Jen and the family with excessive medical and incidental costs.
Anyone who could not make the event and would still like to donate may send checks made out to Knights of Columbus Council 3187 with Jennifer Andres in the memo. The checks may be sent to Team Andres at 17 Parker Ave., Fair Haven, NJ 07704.
The Sandones and Andres families would like to give a special thanks to Umberto’s and Fairwinds Deli for the generous food donations donation of time and help serving.
They would also like to thank the band Filet of Soul for the entertainment. And they would like to thank all the businesses that donated auction prizes and every person who donated time and assistance.