Illustration of a nanny with her angel wings around a group of children

Illustration By Jamie Bennett

Nanny volunteers help young moms with cancer

Qualified caregivers from across the GTA are donating time to support families in times of need

Vanessa Joyette used to be constantly busy with her kids, taking them to ice skating, swimming and music lessons, then to the park or Chuck E. Cheese. But two years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. “All of a sudden their activities just stopped cold turkey,” she says.

A single parent with two young children—a seven-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy—Joyette suddenly found her life revolving around specialist appointments, treatments and hospital stays. Her energy was low and even on days when her physical symptoms waned, she struggled with depression and anxiety about her illness.

“I lost so much weight; I was 95 pounds at my lowest,” she says. “I was really weak and even getting up to my apartment was hard. My mother had to move in for a year to help me around the house, with things like laundry, grocery shopping and food preparation.

Then she remembered that a social worker had told her about the Nanny Angel Network, an organization that matches qualified childcare volunteers with moms undergoing cancer treatments. She applied to have a nanny matched with her family for a regular, long-term commitment. Enter Jennifer Dietert, like a real-life Mary Poppins, to support Joyette through her most challenging time.

“I was relieved when I met Jennifer last fall, as I really needed the help,” she says. “After I was hospitalized, shortness of breath became an issue and even just preparing meals was a challenge.”

Photo of a woman leaning on a table ledge

The hardship of balancing childcare while fighting cancer is similar for many moms. Nanny Angels founder, Audrey Guth, witnessed that struggle first-hand when she herself was undergoing cancer treatment. As she sat in a waiting room at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre one day, she saw a woman with a young child on her lap who kept pulling off the scarf that the mother had covering her head. “I saw these tears well up in her eyes,” says Guth. “And I just had this epiphany that I could help her.” Guth, who ran a for-profit nanny placement agency at the time, thought to herself: I know people who would love to volunteer their time to help a mother in this situation, and I can make it happen.

She went home that day and created the Nanny Angel Network, which is now a registered charity with more than 100 nannies across the GTA. Caregivers volunteer four hours a week of free childcare to support mothers on their cancer journey.

Nannies need at least a year of professional childcare experience to sign up, and then they undergo background checks. They also do eight weeks of specialized training in grief and bereavement, where they learn how to support children through the anger, sadness, fears and potential behavioural issues that might come up in response to their mother’s illness.

Dietert says she was drawn to Nanny Angels because she wanted the opportunity to support a woman going through such a vulnerable and frightening time. She now picks up Joyette’s kids from school a few days a week and spends two or three hours with them. She sometimes fits in a weekend visit, as well. “Some weeks it feels like a lot, but I know this is really important, so I make the time,” she says. Dietert and the children play games together or do crafts like making slime. She also likes to take them to their activities or fun outings, say to a playground or the library. “I try and get them out of the house,” she says. “Vanessa doesn’t always have the energy for playing soccer, playing on the climber or going for long walks.”

Photo of a nanny taking care of kids

Joyette uses this kid-free time to organize the laundry, handle paperwork or get lunch ready for when her son and daughter come home. “I have a Kit Kat sometimes too,” she says, laughing. Having a nanny around has been invaluable. “The kids don’t have to necessarily concentrate on the fact that mommy is not well, because we have this person that they can play with and engage with,” says Joyette. And the young mom really appreciates Dietert’s childcare style. “She has a good way of talking to the kids: helping them to be patient, use their listening skills and remember their indoor voices, but she is delicate at the same time,” she says.

During the holidays last year, when Joyette was in the hospital, Dietert was able to make a difference for Joyette’s mother too. “I was trying to alleviate the grandmother, who, all of a sudden, had this extra burden of childcare as well,” she says.

Joyette’s children have developed a beautiful bond with Dietert. They like to make things like cards and friendship bracelets for her. “They run to her and they tell her things even before I can sometimes—the last time they saw her they explained that I had a small operation done,” Joyette says.

Joyette is currently on immunotherapy, with no end-date scheduled. She says she would love it if Dietert remained in the family’s lives, as she continues her cancer journey. “My daughter said it’s like having an older sister,” she says. “I hope she never goes away—Jennifer is wonderful.”

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