If you make it they will come, especially if what you’re making is warm, creamy hot chocolate on a cold December day. That’s a good thing for four Brewer girls who have spent the past several years trying to raise money and awareness for cancer research.
The girls, Abby Sargent, 11, Jessica Sargent, 13, Torrie Openshaw, 12, and Jaclyn Cyr, 15, were recognized earlier this month by the city council for their efforts — including raising more than $20,000 for cancer research.
The quartet, who are all related, has spent every weekend in December since 2008 giving out hot chocolate in front of their decorated home near Gettysburg Avenue, and asking for donations from Christmas light revelers. Brewer councilors, at the prompting of Councilor Kevin O’Connell, presented the girls with a formal recognition and a “challenge coin” encouraging them to continue bettering their community.
“I told them ‘You made Brewer look better,’” O’Connell said. “I told them I’d like to challenge them to make their world a better place but I think [they’ve] already figured that out.”
The Gettysburg Avenue neighborhood is known for its elaborate Christmas displays. Abby, Jessica and Torrie’s father, Mike Openshaw said it only took living there one season for him to realize he wanted in on the fun. He estimates that around 800 to 1,000 people stop by the neighborhood each Saturday in December, and said the girls give away an average of 30 gallons of hot chocolate a night.
“When you have 25 houses and you have almost every single one decorated, it’s phenomenal,” he said.
The girls decided to start giving away hot chocolate and asking for charitable donations after hearing about a neighbor with cystic fibrosis and after a successful first year, changed their focus to cancer research. Some people give them nothing, but others give more than their share which means the sisters and cousin regularly bring in hundreds of dollars each weekend.
O’Connell said the girls’ efforts were particularly inspiring because they girls are pre-teens and teenagers who stereotypically are more self-centered.
“They’re really nice kids … [and] they really went above and beyond,” he said. “It’s a big deal for them to realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them.”
Cancer and supporting cancer research is a big part of the Openshaw-Sargent family, particularly after Mike Openshaw received a cancer diagnosis in the summer of 2011.
Mike Openshaw was diagnosed with a rare neuroendocrine cancer called metastatic pheochromocytoma. He receives experimental treatments of extreme doses of radiation that require him to stay in isolation several weeks at a time. However, he and his doctors don’t know how much time he has left, despite him living longer than expected already. The family tries not to focus on the unknowns, instead putting their efforts toward raising awareness.
“This is how we battle cancer,” Mike Openshaw said of the fundraising and awareness the girls do. “We know that I’m eventually history, nobody thought [I] would last this long, but we don’t think about this stuff.”
The recent acknowledgement from the city council isn’t the first time the girls have been recognized publicly or privately. Several media outlets including the Bangor Daily News have told their story and this year, Machias Savings Bank offered to anonymously sponsor the stand by donating everything from candy canes to cups and lids.
Families have sent Mike and the girls cards, sharing their personal stories of cancer loss and survival, and often say they are inspired by Openshaw’s story and positive attitude. Others have delivered gifts to their door, or tins full of hot chocolate for them to use throughout the Christmas season.
“It’s great to hear from people that this is their family tradition,” Openshaw said. “These are little girls and they are already a family tradition … what a great family tradition too, other kids are seeing what it is to give.”