The von Mehrens' family legacy: Giving back to the Vineyard Nursing Association

The annual VNA Clambake. Photo by Diana Waring
The annual Clambake is the place for great eating and socializing. Photo by Diana Waring

By Karla Araujo - July 20, 2006

Until the summer of 1996, the von Mehrens of Martha's Vineyard would probably have defined themselves as a busy, active, normal family. John was an attorney who practiced law in Vineyard Haven. Sharon had created her own business, Vineyard Botanicals, an all-natural skin care and home accessories company. She and John shared a passion for sailboat racing. Jessica, Sharon's only child from a previous marriage, was happily away at college.

On a warm day that summer, Sharon was enjoying her first outside shower of the season. She thought of a close friend who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and decided to perform her first self-exam. At 43, she'd never even had a mammogram.

John and Sharon von Mehren. Photo courtesty of VNA
The late John and Sharon von Mehren - their spirit continues. Photo courtesty of VNA

"I felt a lump on my right breast," she said later. "I was shocked." Repeated tests finally confirmed stage-two breast cancer. Sharon spent the next six years undergoing aggressive treatment, but by the summer of 2002 the disease had metastasized to both liver and bone. She died on October 21, 2002.

During the six years of her illness, Sharon, John, and Jessica had grown to rely heavily on home health care provided by the Vineyard Nursing Association (VNA). John was so grateful to the staff of compassionate nurses, aides, and physical therapists that had helped his wife that he became a member of the board of directors while Sharon was still alive. Together, in fact, they had conceived the nonprofit organization's first annual VNA Clambake at The Field Gallery in West Tisbury. This year's event, the seventh of its kind, is scheduled for Wednesday, July 26, at 6 pm.

Six months after Sharon's death, John was suffering from grief and a persistent cough. An occasional smoker, he had ignored the symptoms until his stepdaughter, Jessica, insisted that he go for an exam. "John's cough pestered him but didn't really worry him," Jessica said. "Then he got a swollen lymph node in his neck that he couldn't ignore." Just 47, he received the stunning diagnosis of lung cancer.

Jessica von Mehren. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Jessica von Mehren brings a very personal touch to this year's clambake. Photo by Ralph Stewart

"The doctors gave him only several months to live," Jessica said. Now 31, she is a pretty, pony-tailed brunette with a warm smile and a quiet air of acceptance about the premature deaths of her mother and stepfather. "John fought it for two more years," she added. "He died, like my Mom, just before his 50th birthday, in August 2005. I never even thought of him as a smoker."

By the time John died, Jessica had spent eight consecutive years with VNA home health-care professionals in her parents' home. "They were family to all of us," she explained. It seemed only natural, she said, to get involved with the VNA in a volunteer capacity. Today she is on the board of directors of the pain management program initially funded by John and named after him. She is also serving as chair of the 2006 Clambake Committee, the event now dedicated to the memory of her parents.

"They would both be thrilled to see me taking the reins," Jessica said. "The VNA was so important to them."

"The event is all about John," Barbara Welsh, Director of Development and Communication for the VNA, chimed in. "He became so committed to fundraising."

VNA Clambake. Photo by Diana Waring
Guests at the 2004 VNA Clambake load their plates high with hearty Island fare. Photo by Diana Waring

"He was still talking about the Clambake two weeks before he died," Jessica added.

After completing college at Tufts, Jessica returned home to the Vineyard. Today she is married and operating a busy landscaping business, Cedar Fields LLC. Her husband Brian, she said, is extremely supportive of her involvement with the VNA.

Barbara is an enthusiastic advocate of Jessica's involvement as well. "She brings a new energy to the event. We value all of our long-time volunteers but we need younger people to get involved in all the nonprofit organizations on the Island," she said. "Plus," she added with a mischievous smile, "she's strong and she can carry things!"

The VNA was formed in 1984 to provide high quality home health care services. Its staff of 35 registered nurses, certified home health aides, physical, occupational and speech therapists, medical social workers, nutritionists, and administrators deliver a full spectrum of health-care services for short-term, long-term, and chronic illnesses. The VNA makes more than 14,000 visits a year to Island homes. Because their services are offered to every resident or visitor regardless of ability to pay, the VNA this year projects over $300,000 in non-reimbursable expenses. Funds raised at events like the Clambake are essential to the agency's survival.

"We hope to raise $50,000 that evening through ticket sales and our live and silent auctions," Barbara said. "We'll be there rain or shine."

Jessica nods in agreement, a young woman committed to giving back some of the care and dedication a small group of health care workers gave to her family day-in and day-out for eight years on the Vineyard.

"It's a traditional New England clambake and a reminder of the way the Vineyard used to be," according to Barbara Welsh, Director of Development and Communication for the VNA. "It's not glitzy or glamorous, but it's a wonderful evening."

Kenny Goldberg and a surprise guest or two will provide entertainment during the live and silent auctions. The Smokin' Flamingos will return to play their unique style of rock 'n' roll and the authentic New England clambake will be prepared by the Martha's Vineyard Clambake Company.

Proceeds from the evening will offset the anticipated $300,000 annual cost of providing home health-care services to Vineyard residents and visitors, regardless of their ability to pay.

Clambake July 26 at The Field Gallery, 6 pm, Field Gallery, State Road, West Tisbury. Tickets $125 per person. For more information call 508-696-0784.

Karla Araujo is a tennis instructor and writer who lives in Oak Bluffs and on the Florida Keys.