When Jennifer Brady shifted to protect herself from her boisterous toddler bouncing on her as though she were a jungle gym, she felt something unusual in her breast. She was relieved when doctors cleared the lump as benign – until a few months later in March 2014, when a subsequent mammogram revealed two golf-ball-size lumps connected like a barbell. She was given six months to live. She was 33 years old; her son, Mason, had just turned 3.
Her first thoughts were of her son. His father left when Mason was just a few days old and wasn’t in the picture. Brady’s parents were a great help, but she was Mason’s primary breadwinner, caregiver, friend, champion. She underwent a double mastectomy almost immediately, and though she far surpassed her six-month prognosis, her 18 months of chemotherapy and radiation were arduous.
As her journey began, she met Maureen – a friend of a friend on Facebook who connected her with Singleton Moms. The small nonprofit has a mighty vision: to serve single parents battling cancer and to help their minor children. The group fills gaps that services like food stamps don’t cover – healthy prepared meals, household goods, and financial and emotional support. Founded by Phoenix native Jody Farley-Berens a decade ago, the agency serves 65 to 70 families a month (including single fathers) and has drawn national attention – CNN recognized Farley-Berens as a 2015 Top 10 CNN Hero last year.
Farley-Berens founded Singleton Moms in response to a personal experience. Her friend, Michelle Singleton, after whom the nonprofit is named, was a single mom of four when she received her cancer diagnosis. Farley-Berens describes her friend as a giving person, who would deliver meals to homeless people on holidays. “She had so little, and she still did for others,” Farley-Berens says.
When Singleton was diagnosed, Farley-Berens and another friend stepped in, taking meals to the house and cleaning. At one point, Farley-Berens and her father paid Singleton’s utility bills. Singleton died at age 32. As she grieved, Farley-Berens realized there were more people like her friend. “It became very personal for me. I wondered, ‘How are they possibly able to manage?’ I want to do for them what I would hope someone would do for me,” she says. At the time, Farley-Berens was a stay-at-home mom with no experience in the nonprofit world; her leadership developed as organically as Singleton Moms itself.
The number of single parents with cancer is difficult to pinpoint. It’s not a statistic that’s tracked. In 2009, the last available count, the Arizona Department of Health Services found 17,000 single parents living with a cancer diagnosis. Singleton Moms parents are often young (average age: 36) with multiple children at home; 70 percent face a stage 4 diagnosis, in which cancer has spread from the primary site to distant tissues or organs (metastasis).
To receive services, a parent must be recovering from a cancer-related surgery or be receiving treatment, and be able to provide a doctor’s documentation. Singleton Moms helps with myriad needs, from refilling the family’s supply of paper towels to providing gas cards to help with the cost of driving to treatments. These services lessen the burden on parents while keeping the children’s lives as normal as possible.
“I’ve also tried to place a very conscious effort on having fun,” Farley-Berens says. “Fun is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Kids deserve to be kids, even if they are going through the prolonged health crisis of a parent.” Singleton Moms provides bags stuffed with all the supplies parents need to throw a birthday party, scholarships for things like summer camps and gymnastic classes, and outings, such as to the Desert Botanical Garden to carve Halloween pumpkins.
Brady and Mason have felt the impact of all these services. She received a gas card, gifts of bare necessities – especially important when the bloody noses she suffered during treatment meant she was going through boxes of tissues at a time – and meals. Sometimes, it was a simple act of kindness that made the biggest impact: While undergoing treatment, Brady’s vision was blurry, making it difficult for her to read to her book-loving son. So, the Singleton Moms staff and volunteers read to him. “Our children are our worlds. When we’re not at our bests, for someone to have our backs is amazing,” Brady says.
She’ll be taking supplementary treatments for 10 years and is still managing the side effects of chemo, such as bone deterioration, but Brady’s outlook is good. This summer she’s looking forward to swimming with Mason – his favorite activity and something infection risks have prevented for the past two years. She says Mason, now 5, is also doing well. “He has a great heart,” she says.
Farley-Berens hopes to ultimately expand. “Although [Singleton Moms] was started in Michelle’s honor and it goes on in her memory, there are many other women we’ve met who are just like her – so giving. It’s not only Michelle that has a legacy; the rest of them do, too.”