When Bruce first reached out to me, I was both overwhelmed and humbled to speak on behalf of the youth that Jean influenced and touched during her lifetime. Everyone here knew her in a different way. I had the perspective of a teenager coming into adolescence, guided by someone who never judged.
My story with Jean begins as it might for many of the young people here today. I met Jean when I was 12 when I accepted an invitation to attend one of her weekly youth group sessions on a whim. An awkward 7th grader struggling to find her place, I had just moved back to NY from a whirlwind experience abroad, and was trying to find my bearings. What I’m sure was a combination of natural adolescent angst and my situation, left me feeling, like so many other teenagers, wholly unnatural in my own skin, inadequate to the core, and unsure of my identity.
Youth group, for those who aren’t familiar, was a place for people to come together, despite their seemingly mismatched backgrounds, their interests, and their friendships. It was a place for kids who weren’t quite sure who they were and were trying to figure it out. For a middle schooler, it also meant free Chinese food or pizza on a Monday night, a game of manhunt in and around the church, and inevitably a careful discussion about how we were all doing, all led by Jean. It was an evening about inclusion, a routine that established normalcy for those of us who sought it, but most importantly, it created a community that transcended the cliques of middle school and later high school; it was about creating a nest of acceptance, and never having to justify why you were the way you were.
As, I would hope some young people are here, would remember, and I of course can only speak about the kids who were in my odd and special medley of a group, youth group was a place that didn’t discriminate. In spite of Huguenot’s affiliations, during my time, the youth group was filled with Jews, and self-proclaimed atheists, Catholics and non-believers; we had athletes, artists, and emos; popular kids, quiet kids, boys with long hair, girls who put on accents, an opera singer, a boy who talked about his two cats, Pronto and Snowflake, girls who crossed out the labels on their t-shirts because they were exploring what it meant to be “non-conformist”. It was truly a collection of teenagers coming into their own, a group of kids who were starting to ask big questions about who they were, who they wanted to be, and who they wanted to surround themselves with.
And that what was so special about the environment that was fostered and cared for so lovingly by Jean. With every new attendee, she opened her heart just a little bit more to them. Jean was the central pillar that kept a safe haven afloat for so many for so many years. While each night didn’t have to mean anything particularly significant, it was about the continuity, the security of knowing that that family would always be there that made it feel so special. Because ultimately, it all mattered, and Jean mattered. Once we entered into that community, we kept coming back, and would continue to come back.
First, I’ll be honest, many of us came back for the free Chinese food.
But then, it was for the marathon rounds of manhunt in the dark parts of the chapel, where week by week, we all became friends, chasing each other around the chapel barefooted.
Then, it was for the gym nights.
Then, it was for the bake sales, and the friendships that formed over a fold out table and cupcakes.
Then, it was for the talent shows.
Then, it was for the midnight runs, where our parents joined in our clan, and phalanxes of carpooling middle-schoolers stormed NYC and gave out food to the homeless into the early hours of the morning.
Then, it was for the nights we decided we wanted to volunteer for events, working in the kitchen during a fundraisers, organizing napkins and clearing out garbage.
Then, it was for an overnight sleepover in the church, whispering in sleeping bags in the second floor of the church as the hush and din of Pelham - and Jean’s “now sleep, children” willed us to sleep.
Then, it was the for my first 10-day work camp trip to Puerto Rico (the inaugural trip having been to South Carolina the year before), that introduced us to a whole world of young people with similar values, where we repaired porchs, and painted cinder block homes in bright colors - and many of us got to see what lay outside NY together - where we learned what a “god sighting” was, and were introduced the notion of “care cards.” (if you went to work camp, you will know what all these mean.)
Then, it was for the excitement that came with each successive work camp, returning with old friends, and extending the invite to new. As Jean said in an email to the graduating seniors in a farewell email, “we’ve done a lot together” and we had. After our trip to Puerto Rico came Michigan, then Canada, and finally Nicaragua.
Little by little, we all kept coming back. We all kept coming back because we had found a temporary respite from the judgment that came with being a teenager.
For me, I kept coming back until I graduated. That was 6 years spent under Jean’s tutelage. I joined a community, scarcely expecting to plant roots, and formed a bond because Jean had created a safe space for me to grow as she did for so many other young people. When I reached to many of my peers, their responses were all the same - the ultimate unifier being simple: seemingly a lifetime of lessons of compassion and generosity, and tireless support.
And that’s why so many of us are here today - because there was no way we couldn’t be for a woman whose selfless spirit is so deeply intertwined with who we all are. Jean only expected the best of us, and taught us that our mission in life was simple: learn about ourselves while serving others. She was dazzled and delighted by young people, and for that reason, we felt appreciated for all that we were.
Jean was a person of the young, a bright soul, who I think we’d all like to remember as she so often was seen - smiling from ear to ear, and laughing, her head thrust back, as she chuckled with a rhythmic bounce - the kind of laugh that told you that it was OK to be who you were, that you were safe, and that you were wanted.
That was the glory of Jean. Effortlessly, she eased so many of us out of adolescence as the conductor of a beautifully orchestrated dance into adulthood; the careful guardian who stood by and trailed us as we began to ride our bikes solo, and eventually took off into the distance as fully-fledged adults. She launched us into the real world with the tools, and skills to succeed, the moral code, convictions and values to do right when confronted with the wild world around us - and mostly, she taught us to be kind. She taught us, by example, to approach the world with a palpable softness, to listen, to care, to recognize that everyone had something to contribute and teach.
Jean did all of this because she had nothing but love in her heart. She was the shining beacon of untarnished good. She derived joy from our strength. She wished success and the best for us all, and supported us unconditionally. Many of us continued to feel that support even after we left Pelham in the form of a facebook post, a happy birthday note, a comment passed along to a friend’s parent at Decicco’s to ask how we were doing. For one lucky former member, it was a visit from Jean and Bruce, who, after years and years of support, visited her in Marion, SCto see how she had put her heart into developing a community garden.
She loved each and every one of us, and we loved her right back.
I wanted to close with a short message that Jean emailed my class of graduating seniors:
“I know how bright, capable and thoughtful you are, and I know that you will be able to become whatever you dream to be. I think you will also always be other-directed, and will live so that positive change is the result. Look out world here you come! You will be in my prayers and I hope you always recognize the presence of God when you experience care and love.”
Jean, Thank you for being such a big part of my life. I, and so many others, will never forget you, and will carry you with us for the rest of our days, in all that you’ve taught us. As another youth group member wrote, “She may never be canonized but if any one of us ever does anything of merit, Jean's stamp is somewhere in the DNA.” We love you.