In partnership with Karen Wellington Foundation

Finding hope and togetherness in the Green Mountain State

A young mother doesn’t let her cancer diagnosis take away from a family vacation through the forests of Vermont

Photo: Tessa Wisnewski

Update: Since publishing this story, Tessa Wisnewski passed away on Saturday, December 21, 2019. Tessa leaves behind her loving husband Benjamin, son Eli, and daughter Abigail. You can help support the Wisnewski family by donating to the Karen Wellington Foundation in honor of Tessa.

Vermont’s verdant foliage hadn’t quite started to turn crimson and gold when the Wisnewski family visited the Green Mountain State last September. Though fall was right around the corner, it still felt very much like summer, with warm temperatures that cooled off just enough in the evenings to throw on a favorite sweatshirt. 

During the four-hour scenic road trip north from their home in Massachusetts, Tessa Wisnewski entertained her baby daughter Abigail and young son Eli with stories and snacks, as her husband steered the way, often chiming in with laughter. The light drizzle was the perfect weather for a vacation, she thought. And her family had desperately needed a vacation.

Karen Wellington Foundation baby Abigail asleep in the car
Baby Abigail asleep in the car. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski

Out of the blue

That spring, just eight weeks after she gave birth to Abigail, Wisnewski, then 34 years old, had been diagnosed with Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. Everything had been a bit of a blur since. There were endless medical appointments and aggressive bouts of chemo, all while she was tending to an infant and a 3-year-old. Her husband Ben stood steadfastly by her side but both parents were tired and scared. 

Then, out of the blue, a week-long getaway was gifted to the Wisnewskis by the Karen Wellington Foundation, a Cincinnati-based non-profit that sends people with cancer on trips with their loved ones. 

“My social worker at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston actually nominated me,” says Wisnewski. “I hadn’t heard of the foundation but they’d recently opened a New England chapter and had a vacation in Vermont that was ready to be paired with a family. They were hoping to find a mom with young children.”

Karen Wellington Foundation Tessa with her two children, Abigail and Eli
Tessa with her two children, Abigail and Eli. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski

The timing couldn’t have worked out better. Wisnewski had just finished two grueling rounds of chemo and learned she would need more, followed by a mastectomy, when she returned home. “I really needed a break mentally to process the fact that I was going to get more chemo,” she says.

Welcome to Smuggs 

Even though she felt run down—the family left for Vermont midweek following her treatment—Wisnewski couldn’t help but relax and recharge when she arrived at Smugglers’ Notch Resort. A popular ski destination during the winter, the picturesque resort (nicknamed “Smuggs”) takes its name from a narrow mountain pass used by 19th-century smugglers who found plenty of hiding places for bootleg goods in the thick forests full of caves and caverns. 

“When we arrived, the sun finally came out as if to signify that we were in the right place,” says Wisnewski. “Vermont has the most beautiful views and I remember just feeling happy to be on an adventure with my little family, breathing in the fresh air, and enjoying the gorgeous views.”

Karen Wellington Foundation Ben enjoying the resort's water slide
Ben enjoying the resort’s water slide. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski
Karen Wellington Foundation Tessa in front of a tall sunflower
Tessa in front of a tall sunflower. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski

Like Wisnewski, Karen Wellington was a young mother of two small children when she was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. She was determined to make the most of whatever time she had left and spent the next decade creating special memories with her family. Some of the best ones happened on vacation and, not long before she passed away, Karen told her husband Kent that she wanted to donate a trip to a family dealing with breast cancer. 

In 2007, Kent founded the Karen Wellington Foundation (KWF) to honor her memory. Since then, the organization, which includes 11 chapters nationwide, has gifted hundreds of trips and memorable activities.

KWF’s mission is simply to give families dealing with cancer a much-needed breather—something pleasurable to put on the calendar. The nonprofit relies on donations of airline miles, days at private homes and time-shares, and other goods and services to make it all happen. KWF also provides spending cash, but it has some strings attached: The money can only be used for fun.

Fun for the whole family 

Luckily, the Wisnewski found no shortage of that at Smuggs, starting with their luxurious accommodations. 

“We stayed in a huge three-bedroom slopeside condo,” says Wisnewski. “My son thought that was the coolest, getting to pick out his own bedroom. It was right on the mountain and I imagine in the winter people just ski in and out. It was perfect for us. We love nature!”

Karen Wellington Foundation Ben and Eli playing at the Smuggs playground in Vermont
Ben and Eli playing at the Smuggs playground in Vermont. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski

The sprawling family-friendly ski resort, also a popular destination in summer, features the FunZone—a 26,000-square-foot indoor complex with everything from bouncy houses to mini-golf—along with indoor and outdoor pools and a selection of restaurants. 

“We would go around and swim at all the pools,” says Wisnewski. “Then we’d play at the FunZone. Each night, we used the money KWF gave us to call ahead and buy dinner at one of the restaurants and bring it back to our condo. One day we had friends we hadn’t seen in a long time come over.”

Wisnewski and her husband even had a romantic day all to themselves. “We put the kids in the resort’s daycare. It was the first time for Abigail so that was challenging. Then we went on a food tour with all these old people, which was really cute. We went to a coffee roaster and a chocolate place and stopped for lunch. Then another chocolate place and a maple syrup place.”

Karen Wellington Foundation The trip to Vermont was extra sweet
The trip to Vermont was extra sweet. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski
Karen Wellington Foundation Tessa and Ben snag some maple syrup
Tessa and Ben snag some maple syrup. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski

Yet another sweet treat was getting back to her kids and learning that Abigail was actually a big fan of daycare. “Abigail loved all the outdoor activities they did,” says Wisnewski. “She really enjoyed the fun center, especially watching her brother play and slide down the slides. She got lots of giggles from that. Everything that her brother does, she wants to do too.”

As for Eli’s favorite? “The Turtle Slide,” says Wisnewski, who adds that her son, now 4.5, “knows that mommy is very sick and some days she is not up for playing.” She and her kids especially enjoy reading together, which they found time for on their trip. Eli also had a blast at Vermont’s famous Ben & Jerry’s Factory, where the family stopped for a tour and some serious ice cream sampling. “Eli loves to know how everything works and asked lots of questions,” she recalls.

Karen Wellington Foundation The Wisnewski family at the Ben & Jerry's Factory
The Wisnewski family at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski

Taking the time to make memories

“I can’t tell enough people about the Karen Wellington Foundation,” says Wisnewski. “When I was diagnosed with cancer, people came out of the woodwork to help with food and cleaning the house, but the one thing that’s missing that people aren’t thinking about, is taking the time to make memories with your significant others and families. We didn’t realize how much we needed the time together until we took that trip. It was so good to have that time. You can dedicate that time to being a family. You don’t have to worry about treatment.”

Wisnewski remains in touch with KWF’s New England chapter and, earlier this year, launched a book fundraiser to purchase books for the organization to distribute, donating $3,900 worth of adult coloring books and children’s books. “It’s one of those clubs you never want to be a part of but once you are a part of it, you are fortunate to connect with some incredible people on your journey,” she says.

In the year since her trip to Vermont, Wisnewski’s cancer has spread, and this September she underwent radiation treatment targeting cancer cells in her brain. “I want to balance being hopeful and being realistic,” she says. “As much as I want to set goals for the future, I need to make sure things are set for my husband and kids if something happens sooner rather than later.”

Karen Wellington Foundation Tessa and Ben will be celebrating their 10th anniversary this year
Tessa and Ben will be celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. | Photo: Tessa Wisnewski

As long as the seasons keep turning, though, Wisnewski plans to hold on to hope. “Ben and I are about to celebrate our 10th anniversary and we always talked about renewing our vows and going somewhere special. My dream trip would be anywhere that has little huts over the water. That’s at the top of my bucket list.”

Update: Since publishing this story, Tessa Wisnewski passed away on Saturday, December 21, 2019. Tessa leaves behind her loving husband Benjamin, son Eli, and daughter Abigail. You can help support the Wisnewski family by donating to the Karen Wellington Foundation in honor of Tessa.