Preston's mom
"We have been going to Jamie's since 2013 and my son just loves it. They are so kind and caring. An amazing preschool. Very warm and inviting. The people I have met over the years have become like family to us. In my darkest times this preschool showed me some light!"
—Preston's mom
Grace's mom

"Jamie’s was our only outing and outlet for three years. It gave us connections with others we will cherish for life. Jamie's made everything that seemed so very wrong in the world at that time OK."
—Grace's mom

Tuesday
Jun212011

Retiring teacher's legacy of love

Liz Mackie plays with Karlee Lewis, 4, (left) and Taiden Clarke, 4, during an outing at Stars Gymnastics Centre on Thursday June 16, 2011. Mackie has worked at Jamie's Preschool for 19 years. She is retiring next week and has had an enormous impact in the lives of hundreds of young children suffering with cancer. Photograph by: Gavin Young, Calgary Herald.

By Licia Corbella, Calgary Herald June 21, 2011

Liz Mackie rifles through an enormous folder and pulls out a yellowed Herald newspaper clipping.

"This is Ben Suggett," she says, pointing at the 1995 photo of the then eightyear-old boy. "I was at his wedding three summers ago," Mackie adds with a beaming smile.

Ben is just one of the hundreds of children Mackie has taught at Jamie's Preschool, a special school for kids with cancer, their siblings and other children with compromised immune systems.

"I keep in touch with the majority of the families over the years as much as I can, because I love everyone of the children I have had the honour of teaching," says Mackie.

On Wednesday -the last day of classes before the summer break -the 60-year-old "ageless" grandma with a teenager's figure is retiring after 19 years at the preschool run out of the basement at St. Andrew's United Church on Heritage Drive S.W.

Mackie says she initially declined the offer to work at Jamie's.

"I said no because I had all of these preconceived notions that working with kids with cancer would be very sad," says Mackie. But she was urged to meet the children before deciding.

"So I went and met the kids and I basically started right away and never left," she says, with a laugh.

Mackie looks around the STARS gym where the children go every Thursday to run around, jump on trampolines and just be normal kids. "This is a place of joy. It's a place of hope and it's a place of love. These kids and their parents have had an enormous impact on me," says Mackie.

"I've received so much more than I've given."

That last statement is one that the owner and founder of Jamie's Preschool and the parents Mackie has "come to love" disagree with adamantly.

"Liz is just a treasure," says Sheri Ewing, who started the preschool in 1986, when her own son, Jamie (who is now 28), was battling cancer and couldn't be around other children for fear of catching colds and the like.

"She is so much more than a great teacher who comes in to work three days a week. She goes way beyond the call of duty. She has the moms over to her house for regular potluck dinners, she takes them on spa days and is there for them 24/7," says Ewing.

Brandi Dickman simply calls Mackie "a godsend" and her "mentor."

Dickman met Mackie when her second child, Callim, was diagnosed with a neuroblastoma tumour the size of a grapefruit in his gut in September 1996. He was just nine months old.

While Jamie's is undoubtedly a safe place for children with weak immune systems to have a sense of normalcy as they undergo cancer treatments, Mackie has also turned it into a refuge and community of caring for the parents and siblings as well, says Dickman.

"In a life of crisis and chaos, Liz made Jamie's Preschool a sunny rock in a stormy sea," says Dickman, who recently became the community and events coordinator at the preschool.

Sadly, Callim passed away on his wish trip to Disneyland in February 1999 when he was just three.

"Liz was there for me every step of the way," recalls Dickman. "I would call her at 2 a.m. and I knew I would wake her up, but she never seemed to mind. She always knows when to just listen or when to say something. Liz has been the rock to so many of us because she exudes a kind of confidence to desperate parents."

Candace Cooke agrees. Even though her son, Kaidan, died four years ago at the age of 18 months, after a one-year battle with infant leukemia, she still brings her preschool-aged children -Isla, 3, and Ashton, five months, to the school to be a support to other moms living through the hell of having a child with cancer.

"After Kaidan died, Liz came to see us every day," says Cooke, 37, who has another son, Josh. "I was breaking down all the time, saying I didn't think that I would ever be happy again. Knowing that she had gone through this with other people really helped me a lot. It helped me believe in a future. She was just so warm.

"I used to call her in the middle of the night and just bawl away on the phone. I remember I called one time and I couldn't even talk and she just stayed with me on the phone and said, 'I'm here, Candace, I'm here.'"

Mackie says the community support for Jamie's has been "overwhelming." A group of women have been coming in to do crafts with the kids for 19 years. Some men play Santa every year, buying all of the gifts for the sick kids and their brothers and sisters, and amusement parks and movie theatres will open at special times so the children can enjoy outings without the risk of catching a cold or other illnesses.

Mackie pokes around in her bulging file again, pulling out photos and rattling off the names of her many kids.

Does she remember them all? She looks surprised. "Of course," she exclaims. "All of the children and the parents have had a huge impact on me."

Mackie says she especially works at staying in touch with the families who lost their children.

Why? "Because I've known that child, and I loved that child and I'll never forget that child, not ever. I want the parents and family of those children to know that their child brought great hope and joy, despite the outcome, to me and to others. I want them to know that their child's short life had meaning and made a difference."

Licia Corbella is a columnist and editorial page editor.

lcorbella@calgaryherald.com