JESSICA “JESS” MCDOUGALL’S classroom desk at Chop Point School in Woolwich sits empty recently, following the 26-year-old teacher’s death on Oct. 26. At right, her dog Rosie — a present when she first moved to Woolwich from Minnesota — walks the grounds of the Christian school.

JESSICA “JESS” MCDOUGALL’S classroom desk at Chop Point School in Woolwich sits empty recently, following the 26-year-old teacher’s death on Oct. 26. At right, her dog Rosie — a present when she first moved to Woolwich from Minnesota — walks the grounds of the Christian school.

McDougall died Oct. 26

 

 

WOOLWICH

J essica “Jess” McDougall felt she had finally found her home when she moved to the windswept campus of Chop Point School in 2009.

Originally from near Minneapolis, Minn., McDougall applied to be a summer camp counselor at the school.

According to Marnie Stevens, Chop Point’s K-6 principal, once McDougall arrived, she never looked back. When her first summer season was over, McDougall transitioned to teaching math, just so she could continue living in Woolwich.

“This is where she planted her roots and where she intended to be,” Stevens said.

 

 

Diagnosed with a rare type of bone cancer last April, McDougall passed away Oct. 26, just days before a studentinspired walk was held to raise funds for her treatment.

She was 26 years old.

“Someone asked her once how long she planned on staying here,” Stevens said. “Jess answered, ‘Forever,’ and she did stay here forever.”

‘Brilliant girl’

As a teacher, McDougall quickly took on diverse roles, adding geography, history, computer sciences and Bible studies, part of Chop Point’s curriculum, to her repertoire of classes.

“She was a brilliant girl and a master of everything she did,” Stevens said. “You could give her a month to prepare and she would have everything down pat.”

The Chop Point campus is located on the tip of a small peninsula where Goose Cove connects to Merrymeeting Bay.

McDougall loved the water views.

In addition to their summer program, Chop Point is a K-12 Christian academy with a small student body, ranging from 80-100 students.

Athletic and relentlessly active, McDougal started a running club for students to participate in between soccer and basketball seasons.

Stevens said, “Jess hated the downtime and wanted students to stay active. Her club had a large following at the school because everyone could do it; if you weren’t a runner, you were welcome to walk.”

McDougall thought that, if you had a club, you had to have a T-shirt, so she designed new T-shirts for the runners every year.

This year, however, the task fell to others; and the new design is inscribed with the initials “J.M.” in her memory.

‘Pushed through it’

Months prior to her diagnosis, McDougall appeared weakened and fatigued.

Stevens said, “She was very tough. She was in a lot of pain, but she pushed herself through it. By the time the medical community was involved, she was stage four.”

McDougall was diagnosed with a peripheral primitive neuroectodermal tumor — a rare type of bone cancer.

Though Stevens reflects that it is best to be proactive in response to physical symptoms of illness, she said Jess pushed to stay focused on her responsibilities as a teacher.

“It’s a testimony to her incredible endurance and athleticism, but also to her stoic nature,” Stevens said.

Bethany Wilkinson, a member of Chop Point’s founding family as well as science and English teacher at the school, said, “Jess was estranged from her family and she came here and started over.

“When she got sick, she said, ‘I thought things were getting better,’” Wilkinson said. “She had found a new family.”

New family

McDougall and Wilkinson became fast friends.

“I’m kind of hard to get to know,” Wilkinson said. “I have four kids, and when I met Jess, my youngest was 9 months old. Jess loved babies, so she wheedled her way into my heart by spending time with my kids.”

McDougall bonded with the entire family. She lived with Peter Willard, the founder of Chop Point, and his wife, Jean, during the school year.

When McDougall started losing her hair due to chemotherapy, Noah, Wilkinson’s son, was inspired to grow his own hair to donate to Locks of Love.

But students and colleagues of McDougall’s were devastated by the news of her diagnosis — even more so as it rapidly became apparent that her condition was terminal.

“There was a lot of angst, sadness and frustration to have this happen,” Stevens said.

With four weeks left in the school year, McDougall’s fellow teachers pitched in to fill the gap as her health worsened and she was no longer able to teach all of her classes.

“It became some of our roles to put on a brave face, keep light-hearted, and keep the school focused for the graduating class of seniors,” Stevens said.

“It’s a part of life,” she said, “So what was happening to Jess was never swept under the carpet. We talked about it with students, who were suddenly confronted with the reality of what stage four cancer looks like.”

Students inspired

Inspired by these discussions, Hillary Lewis, 11, asked her teacher if the students could organize a fundraiser walk for McDougall.

Barbara Moore, Lewis’ teacher, said, “Hillary knew that October was breast cancer awareness month so she wanted to spread awareness for Jess. Jess loved the idea.”

Lewis told her teacher that she had walked the Back River Trail on Eaton Farm Preserve with her grandparents, and thought the 1.8 mile trail would be an ideal location.

“At prayer time every day, Hillary said, ‘I hope we can do the cancer walk,’” Moore said. “So I told her that the pieces were coming together. After that, her prayer every day was, ‘I hope the pieces come together.’”

The pieces did come together.

Students in grades 2-6 at Chop Point participated in a fundraiser walk for McDougall on Oct. 31. They raised $572, which they are donating to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Chop Point will continue to accept donations for cancer research until Nov. 22. Checks should be made payable to Chop Point School, with “cancer research fundraiser” written in the memo. Checks can be mailed to Chop Point School, 425 Chop Point Road, Woolwich, ME 04579. For more information, call 443-3080.

The outpouring of attention from students and peers had been heartwarming for McDougall, who by October was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from severe pain.

Wilkinson said McDougal was never so happy as her last summer at Chop Point.

“Jess said, ‘I just met my new family and I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to leave yet.”

A pug named Rosie

As a gift, the Willard family gave McDougall her first pet that first summer, a pug she named Rosie.

“Rosie was her constant companion,” Wilkinson said. Rosie was even allowed to stay with McDougal when she was undergoing intensive, in-hospital treatment.

A memorial was held for Jess McDougall at the school and Jean Willard had a headstone for McDougall placed in a cemetery by the family home; close, so they “can visit.”

McDougall’s new family scattered her ashes along the river by the campus.

“Jess loved Chop Point so much,” Wilkinson said. “She’s still here with us.”

ROSANNA GARGIULO is a Times Record correspondent based in Brunswick.


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