A Carbonear woman got the surprise of her life when a complete stranger offered her a trip across the country to see her grandchildren in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Dale Thomas was working in the customer service desk at Walmart when a customer handed him a plane ticket.
“I didn’t expect this in a million years,” she said. The stranger gave Thomas a card that read, “Gifts around the tree, family around the table, love in your heart and a trip to Fort McMurray to see Madden and Jayda for me.”
The stranger was Annette Sparkes, a woman from Shearstown. Although the two women do not know each other, they share a common enemy: Batten disease, a rare group of fatal nervous system disorders that begin in childhood and worsen over time.
Sparkes’ twins, Rebecca and Andrea, were diagnosed with Batten disease in 2005, when they were four years old.
“I remember the day the twins were diagnosed,” Sparkes recalled. “I came home and googled and the first word that came up was ‘fatal’.” Both girls died in 2008.
“It’s a horrible disease for children,” Sparkes said.
Madden, Thomas’ grandson, also has Batten disease.
“It’s a neurological disease,” she said. “It takes our children away from us. It takes away our [their] ability to walk, talk, eat, communicate. It’s a relentless disease.”
Madden was diagnosed with the condition two years ago, in December 2019. Thomas has seen him change a lot since then.
“Madden is regressing all the time,” Thomas said.
“It’s kind of slowed down now because he’s getting his treatments. But every time I go up there, I see a big change in him. Like, he used to call me Nan, now he doesn’t talk to me, he don’t talk to me anymore. I can’t call myself Nan anymore because he can’t say it anymore. So it’s a big change, and I miss so many things that I just want to spend as much time as possible with him. .”
Madden’s experience with Batten disease is chronicled in a Facebook group called Madden’s Fight. It was there that Sparkes first heard of Thomas and his grandson.
Sparkes said she was inspired to help Thomas earlier this month, on the 13th anniversary of her daughter Rebecca’s death.
“I was walking like I do, and I don’t know, it occurred to me that I had to help. Madden just came up to me, and the girls were with me, and I just felt like I had to give Dale that ticket to leave.”
Earlier this year, Sparkes won two free plane tickets from the Children’s Wish Foundation, after raising more than $4,000 for the foundation’s Walk for Wishes campaign.
“I raised the most money in Newfoundland and Labrador,” Sparkes said.
Although Sparkes originally considered using the tickets to see her own friends and family, she decided it was more important for Thomas to have the ticket.
“I know where they are as a family,” Sparkes said. “I know she has to go and… spend time with her family.”
Sparkes says when she felt proud when she surprised Thomas with the theft.
“I could have jumped on the moon,” she said. “That’s what Christmas is all about.”
Sparkes says they plan to book the flights in the spring.
“My goal is to have [Thomas] flying first class in Fort McMurray,” Sparkes said. She gives the other ticket to her mother, who will also be traveling to Alberta to visit her sister and grandson.
As for Thomas, she says that Sparkes is her “Christmas angel”.
“For the past two years, I’ve had to dig deep into my faith,” Thomas said. “But I tell you, I have my faith back now.”
“I honor my daughters too,” Sparkes said. “So that makes me feel really good.”
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