Bald Eagle

‘Our family’s new hero’: Cancer victim kept spirits high despite illness, inspired others

In a time of sorrow, the employees of Trader Joe’s in Patton Township provided some cheer to the VanOrden and Sayers families. The employees dropped off on Monday turkey, potatoes, desserts and all the trimmings they bought for the families’ Thanksgiving meal.

Others, many anonymous, have offered financial help for paying the mortgage bill or the electric bill. There’s a stack of gifts to help with household items.

And on Facebook, prayers, words of encouragement, and recollections of precious moments flood in.

The family and close friends of Howard native Jaime VanOrden, by human nature, should be grieving this Thanksgiving with the recent, untimely loss of their loved one to breast cancer. But the outpouring of support from friends has them thankful for their memories of her as a special sister, mom and wife; the optimist and cake-maker; and the friend whose message to her cancer was “suck it.”

“She was the sort of person who never wanted anyone to be disappointed,” said her younger brother, Foster “Joey” Sayers III, of Providence, R.I. “We’re so thankful that she fought for as long as she did. She really lived up until the day that she died.

“We couldn’t be prouder.”

VanOrden, 35, of Zion, died Nov. 19 at Mount Nittany Medical Center after succumbing to an almost three-year battle with cancer. In addition to her brother, she is survived by her husband, William VanOrden II, and 4-year-old son, Jackson, and her parents, Foster Jr. and Sydney Sayers.

Her loved ones describe VanOrden as someone with an indomitable spirit whose story captivated people through a Facebook group, Praying for Jaime, that a friend from church created. People — many whom she didn’t know — cried with her and for her as the cancer worsened.

The group also helped foster a movement far beyond the geographic boundaries of her family and close friends in Howard, Bellefonte and Lock Haven. They’d share how they wore pink, for breast cancer awareness, in solidarity each Tuesday, which was the day of her weekly chemotherapy appointment.

“She took so much strength from that page,” her brother said. “People that she never even met were dressing up in a pink.”

VanOrden wore a pink T-shirt to the appointments after best friend Kristy Weight, of Zion, wanted a way to make light of the cancer that was diagnosed in February 2011 and progressed to stage 4 months later.

Weight always accompanied her friend to her appointments. They’d make a day of it, canceling out the darkness of cancer with the sunshine from getting lunch or relaxing with a pedicure. Their first stop was usually grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, which is how the employees there came to recognize her.

Weight ironed the phrase “suck it cancer” onto the T-shirts, and the friends sported them to one of VanOrden’s appointments.

“We just thought they were funny that we could wear them to her chemo,” Weight said. “A bunch of people kept asking us about them and saying that they loved the T-shirts.”

The T-shirt grew into more than just a take-that message. It became the so-called Jaime Effect, as it’s adorned on the T-shirts, a vehicle to make life a little better for people such as VanOrden who were spending money on their treatments, co-pays and deductibles.

Weight and VanOrden began selling the pink slogan shirts for $20, and the proceeds have supported paying the generosity forward with gift cards for gas, movies, a toy store or other retailer to help out folks dealing with cancer. Each gift is $100.

Weight said they didn’t want the money to go to treatment. Instead, as they’d write in a note, the contribution is to “help make their journey just a little bit easier and day a little bright.”

Friends said VanOrden was optimistic that she would overcome the cancer. Weight had gone with her to hospitals in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago, hoping to find a cure. Prayers were pouring in through the Facebook group.

But late the night of Nov. 15, VanOrden was in severe pain, and her family took her to the emergency room at Mount Nittany.

She never left.

“She believed up until the last moment that she was going to beat this,” said friend Nicole Brown, of Bellefonte, who met VanOrden two years ago through Zion Community Church and created the Facebook page this spring. “It was just amazing to see her fight through this and keep her faith and not give up.”

To date, almost 2,000 people have been added to the Praying for Jaime Facebook group. Brown said she added about 200 on the day of VanOrden’s funeral over the weekend.

Brown and VanOrden got to know one another through a Bible study group and a playgroup for preschoolers at the church. VanOrden, known for her cakes, brought in one shaped like a castle for a children’s Christmas party at the church one year, Brown said.

The cake-baking was a side business, something she enjoyed doing, the friends said.

She had a knack for being thoughtful, too.

Another friend, Mary Jo Miller, of Zion, said VanOrden was the best at coming up with gift ideas, such as the popular Rainbow Loom bracelet maker for her 10-year-old daughter. VanOrden scoured Black Friday ads after Miller talked to her about getting the kids a tablet computer for Christmas.

And just the other week, VanOrden heard from a friend that Miller was on the lookout for a strawberry-colored knit hat for her daughter, who was born the day after VanOrden died. VanOrden wanted to help, too.

“She was on her deathbed, and she was worried about finding a strawberry hat for my baby,” said Miller, who knew VanOrden from going to school together at Bald Eagle Area. “That was the kind of person she was.”

Miller laments that VanOrden didn’t get to see the baby, who was born a week after her due date. As a tribute to her friend, Miller gave her baby girl the middle name Jaime.

Longtime friend Amity Day grew up swimming in the pool at VanOrden’s parents’ house in Howard, having sleepovers at each other’s houses, going to church and just being there when either needed emotional support. When Day lost her sister when she was in high school, VanOrden lent her a shoulder to cry on.

“She was a very huge part of being there for me,” said Day, who lives in Lock Haven. “She was like another sister to me.”

After high school, the two weren’t in contact every day. But, Day said, their friendship was one in which they could reconnect and resume the closeness they’d always had.

When Day got word that VanOrden wasn’t doing well, she went to visit her friend at her new house in Zion. Her friend didn’t complain about her condition.

“Jaime was very good at being factual but also saying, ‘Nobody’s going to tell me when I’m going. I’m going to fight,’” Day said.

Sayers III, VanOrden’s brother, lauded her fighting spirit in her eulogy. He compared her bravery to that of their grandfather, the first Foster Sayers, who was killed in combat during World War II near Thionville, France, on Nov. 12, 1944. Sayers posthumously was awarded a Medal of Honor.

Like the grandfather, who charged through machine-gun fire and took position behind a log to distract dug-in Germans from his fellow infantrymen, she faced the notion of certain death.

Her grandfather’s heroism allowed his comrades to sweep up a hill to flank the enemy and minimize their casualties. VanOrden fought on, too, in the hope that her work, her words, and her existence would mean others would, in some way, be better off because of it.

“She’s our family’s new hero,” Sayers III said. “Her legacy will be as great as our grandfather’s.”