Rhode Island Spotlight: Heavenly Gingers

Frank O’Donnell has been a professional comedian for more than three decades, appearing in front of hundreds of audiences like one that gathered at Twin River on a Tuesday evening in March. Being on stage is a natural and comfortable place for O’Donnell. But this particular show — an annual event he’s done the past six years alongside fellow comedian John Morris — had poignant moments and more than a few tears.

That’s because the show — dubbed Heavenly Gingers — is a tribute to Keri Anne O’Donnell, Frank’s daughter who was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 15, and to Morris’ daughter Jessica, who died in 2008 at age 20 from ovarian cancer. Keri, the youngest of Frank and Karen O’Donnell’s four children, died in July 2010.

Jessie died two years before Keri, but Frank and Karen O’Donnell had become very close with her parents, John and Kathie Morris, through Kathie’s dance studio, where both girls grew up. They viewed themselves as cousins, with a lot of other friends joining in.

“During the summer after the accident we had some horrific thunderstorms,” Frank O’Donnell said. “John and I talked a lot, because John had been there already. We were just joking, because that’s what we do, that the thunderstorms were the girls fighting over who was in charge of the dance studio up there. And that’s where ‘Heavenly Gingers’ came from.”

The Heavenly Gingers show funds two separate non-profit organizations: Jessie’s Dream and the Keri Anne O’Donnell Memorial Fund. It has raised tens of thousands of dollars and provided scholarships for dozens of kids to go to camps, workshops or to take lessons in a variety of performing arts they otherwise might not be able to afford.

Jessie loved performing and literally grew up at Kathie’s dance studio, now in its 35th year. Jessie and her younger sister Kayla, who now teaches with her mother, performed their first dance with Kathie when Kayla was 5 and her older sister 9.

“Her main thing was dance and this is what she wanted to do,” Kathie Morris said. “She had all intentions to go down to Disney, be like an exchange Disney dancer down there for a while. The stage was her thing, but dance was her thing. The reason we named it Jessie’s Dream is because Jessie never got to follow her dream.”

At age 18, during her first obstetric examination, the doctor discovered Stage 3 ovarian cancer, even though there was no family history. The doctors called it a random mutation of cells. “Ovarian cancer, the symptoms are very vague and there are no pre-screening tests for ovarian cancer, there was no reason to, she was a healthy, just-about 18-year-old,” John Morris said, adding that Jessie died three weeks shy of her 21st birthday.

Like the O’Donnells, who would experience the loss of their own daughter two years later, the Morrises looked for some meaning. “I really do believe that her legacy to us is the show must go on,” Frank O’Donnell said. “As corny as that sounds. I really think that is an important message to teach. That you really have to go on.”

So they launched the show as a vehicle to raise money for the two scholarship funds. In the early years virtually everyone knew — or had had contact with — Jessie, Keri or both. Kathie Morris credits her younger daughter Kayla, who reopened the studio after Jessie’s death and got her mother to come back as well.

I think that’s one of the saddest truths of all. Life does go on, with or without you,” John Morris said. “Frank and Karen have other children and we have our Kayla and you can’t cheat them out of their lives. Their lives are going to go on, too.”

“We wish we weren’t doing this, but we have to,” Frank O’Donnell said. “It’s very bittersweet. It’s very difficult to even get out on that stage. There are moments when we’ll just have to choke back the tears. We are talking about our daughters who aren’t here anymore and we wish we weren’t talking about our daughters who aren’t here anymore.”

John Morris added, “The scab is always there. The scab is there and it’s easily picked. At a moment’s notice, or a thought or a song or a dance or, you know, whatever it is that triggers the memory — she’s never that far away. It’s always raw.”

And while the pain of parents who have lost children is unfathomable to those who haven’t gone through it, both couples say it has been tremendously gratifying to see their daughters’ legacy live on in so many of the people who support and benefit from Heavenly Gingers.

“When we see the testimonials about what the kids have done, when you see the whole thing put together, you see the impact that it has,” Frank O’Donnell said. “And when we pull back the curtain and you see all of those kids. These are the kids who are being impacted by what this show does and what we’ve been able to do in Keri’s name and in Jessie’s name. We go to see a  lot of the shows that these kids are in and it truly is amazing not only to see what they’re doing, but to have them afterward say, ‘You know what? I couldn’t have been here if it weren’t for this.'”

Kathie Morris added, “It is a huge feeling that we’re doing something so good for these kids. I’ve worked with kids, I started when I was 14 doing the teaching. It’s phenomenal, it really is, to watch those kids and listen to what an impact Jessie and Keri had — not us, but them.”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org


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