Her mother Cassy Evans recalls the moment that shaped the past three years of the Lake Macquarie family’s life.
“I was picking up Tessa’s brother and sister from vacation care when I received a call from our doctor who said initial test results weren’t looking good and we should go to hospital for more tests,” Cassy says.
The call followed Tessa falling ill 10 days before with fevers and severe lethargy. After visits to various GPs, and antibiotics, Tessa was sent for blood tests.
“We found out on a Thursday and I just thought, this is crazy,” says Cassy. “Only two weeks ago we had a healthy two-year-old. She started chemo the next day.”
Despite the years of leukemia treatment and different life experiences to her 23 peers in Kindergarten, Tessa shares the same emotions as she starts school.
“She is so excited,” says Cassy. “I think she might get a bit nervous when it comes to walking in the gate, but she’s been wearing her sister’s uniform and asking for months when she will start.”
Starting school is a significant milestone for any child and their family. This time brings with it hope, excitement, some nervousness, and many new experiences.
It marks the commencement of education, a beginning of new friendships, connections – a community. And the family is aware of the exceptional community that will support her and her daughter at the school.
With her older siblings attending the school over the past three years, Cassy and Tessa’s father, Jonathan, have been part of that network as they navigated Tessa’s diagnosis and treatment.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” says Cassy. “We were able to call on a community – many through the school, other friends and just calling on people when I needed it. There were times when I had to phone other parents at the school and ask them to help with my older kids as we had to unexpectedly rush to hospital.
“The school is a close-knit community and I’ve been lucky to experience that. It’s big enough that there are facilities and good extra-curricular activities but small enough that we know each other.”
Jonathan says, “The support was outstanding. Even just knowing that you have support in the background and calling on it when needed, that can make all the difference.”
When Tessa became sick, the school developed a care roster and different families made meals for the Evans family. This initiative is something the school does regularly for any family going through a difficult time.
“In the end, everyone was so kind and generous I ended up telling them it was OK to stop cooking,” says Cassy. “The little things like this have a made a huge difference to us.”
Late last year, Tessa followed the lead of her older siblings and decided to write a Christmas card to the school principal, Simon Devlin.
Mr Devlin says Tessa has always been positive and happy as part of the wider school community.
“It’s an example of resilience and strength in someone so young,” he says. “In fact, the whole family has been so supportive of our community. They bring a lot of energy to the school.”
Such energy is reciprocated.
“There have been some lovely connections at the school and Tessa already knows her buddies,” says Cassy. “The school sent out letters from the buddies and we learnt about them and this really helped in making the kids feel more welcome.”
Tessa’s connection to her new friends shines through.
“My buddies will play with me at lunchtime,” says Tessa. “We can play in the playground. And at orientation, I got to go to my classroom. We made some things out of playdough.”
With the companionship of her buddies and a bubbling confidence, Tessa will commence Kindergarten like any other child.
Jonathan agrees she is counting down the days to school, looking forward to what lies ahead. “I just hope that she has fun and she really enjoys the whole journey,” he says.
Cassy contemplates this new beginning – what finishing the leukemia treatment last year means for her family, and what 2021 will bring for Tessa.
“It’s really just normalcy that I hope for,” says Cassy. “It seems like a bizarre thing to say, and we hear about the ‘new normal’ a lot with Covid, but our family has been using that term for years.
“For Tessa, 2021 is about sharing ‘a normal’ with everyone else. Starting school, being with her friends and just being able to do things that all the other kids are doing.”