It started about more than 20 years ago at a “Goodbye 1990 Party.”
Eager to roll in the New Year, Jean Cunningham invited a group of friends over and among them was Roy Kirkley, an old friend from her Germantown High School graduating class. Immediately sparks between the two ignited.
And not three years after rekindling their friendship, Roy and Jean became Mr. and Mrs. Kirkley.
Their union grew and flourished for several years until one day in May 2006 when Jean received a call at work from her husband.
“He called and said he felt really bad,” Jean said. “We put him in the hospital and he never came out.”
Jean spent the next 32 months of her life relentlessly following her husband from hospital to rehabilitation center and back to the hospital. Her life revolved around checking on Roy, advocating for him in a time he couldn’t advocate for himself.
“When [Roy] got sick, I was proud of my friend for the way she stood by her husband,” said Kathy Sutton, longtime friend of Jean and classmate of Roy since grade school. “Imagine having your husband in the hospital almost two and a half years and you go in almost every single day. This was really a difficult situation and she hung in there.”
But after nearly three years battling against his body, Roy was finally defeated in January 2009. He ultimately died of kidney failure with a slew of added complications.
And Jean found herself forlorn and broken. She became desperate for something to wake up for in the morning.
So last December as a way of regaining her own sanity and sharing her newfound wisdom with others, she launched BOOMERS ‘R HEROES, a Mount Airy support group for people struggling to take care of their spouses or parents while running their own lives.
“You’ve got your job, you’ve raised your children or are perhaps raising children or grandchildren and now you have to take on your parents too and make sure they get what they need,” she said.
She started BOOMERS ‘R HEROES as a conduit of resources to help people help themselves through difficult times. During meetings, speakers address issues on a wide range of topics, including caregiver wellness and patient care, and information on housing, pharmaceuticals and medical services.
The classes began in Sutton’s shop on Germantown Avenue and then moved down the street to the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement building when Jean’s proposal was accepted by Mount Airy Learning Tree (MALT), a non-profit community service organization. With the MALT series ending March 14, Jean will hold meetings in her North Philadelphia church, the North Penn Baptist Church at 2419 N. 27th St.
“She’s working on this and it gives her purpose and this is her therapy,” Sutton said. “I think if you can have this therapy for yourself and help other people as well, it’s a great thing. I see how it’s making her happy and I hope that something more becomes of it.”
Jean said, “I feel like I’m helping [people] and am able to light the way and make them understand they’re not crazy. The feelings you feel are real and it’s OK to express yourself freely – that’s why we’re here.”
And with the support of Sutton, Jean continues to try to grow the program, hoping to become a part of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and hold classes throughout the city. And she keeps her husband in her heart all the time as a source of inspiration.
“This year would be our 20th [anniversary] so that kind of hurts. Heck it does hurt,” Jean said. “But he’s here all the time.”
The next BOOMERS ‘R HEROES meeting will be held from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 19, at North Penn Baptist Church, 2419 N. 27th St.
More information can be found at the organization’s website at www.boomersrheroes.com