HEMMSFEMME SPOTLIGHT // Finding Joy In Adversity w/ Jessica Olstad

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Give us the quick and dirty, where do you live? Where do you sweat? Oh, and tell us something quirky about you.

Originally born and raised on a farm west of Winnipeg I moved out to Calgary with no plan, no job, and no money. Not sure what I was thinking at the time but I’ve called Calgary home for the last 11 years and couldn’t picture a better place to live. I love this city and the people in it. It’s where I learned to love, to sweat. Due in large part to the welcoming fitness community, working out has become something I look forward to and enjoy rather than just an item on my to do list. My favorite ways to sweat in Calgary are Lagree and recently I started working out with the guys at Bold Athlete. With a hip injury I needed a work out that pushes me but also helps strengthen my hip, glutes, and legs. The team at Bold is super encouraging and I feel so pumped up when I leave. I also love a good barre workout, it’s the perfect sweat date with a girlfriend. And something quirky about me is that if I love an outfit I might rock it 3 days in the same week, if it works I just go with it.

Jumping right in, it's no secret that you've faced your share of adversity in the last two years. Your fearless honesty about your son Lewiston's life with Spinal Muscular Atrophy rallied our Calgary community and provided space for love and connection to live alongside challenge and difficulty. (Readers, learn about Jessica and Lewiston's journey here). What made you decide to share your family's story as you experienced it as publicly as you did? 

Honestly at first Instagram was just the easiest way to share what was happening with our family and friends who wanted to support us and were praying for us. When we were undiagnosed we got so many text messages asking the same questions I found myself copying and pasting updates for way too many people, it became too time consuming. Instagram became a one-stop shop for us to update people and ask for prayer.

“I think we all struggle with who we are.”

We knew the journey was going to be tough; there were so many unknowns. It felt lighter with the encouragement and support we received through Instagram. Social media can be a time waster and a distractor but it can also bring people together and we saw that with Lewiston. The amount of support we received physically, emotionally and financially was insane. I truly believe the burden is easier to bear because of the support we have. I also didn’t want to suffer in silence. We aren’t the first family to go through tragedy and we unfortunately won’t be the last. There’s power in sharing your story, you just never know who you’ll touch.

Adversity is defined simply as 'difficulties; misfortune'. We all experience stumbling (or road) blocks at points in our lives, what did you learn about yourself through Lewiston that makes you proud?

A couple of things; to just be me and love all of me. There really is only one Jessica Janzen Olstad. I think we all struggle with who we are. There are lies we’ve listened to/told ourselves our entire life and it can be difficult to block them out, especially when you’re feeling down. I get criticized or judged for being loud, in your face, and bold. I speak my mind and my heart. At times, I know I was a lot to handle for the doctors and the medical staff, but we always received what we needed as a family and most importantly what Lewiston needed. My boldness and forthrightness served us well. It was even instrumental in Lewiston receiving the first clinical trial drug in Alberta. In learning not to doubt who I am I can embrace that person. It’s okay that I’m not everyone’s best friend and that I’m not everyone’s flavor. I accept all of me and if more people embraced who they were I believe we would be a happier society.

“We danced every day, we sang and we made amazing memories that now translate into my everyday – bring joy, find joy, BE joy.”

The other lesson that I can really appreciate was our ability to find joy. It was hard AF some days. There were days when we just felt like we had nothing left, no fight, no energy, no will power to do more and some how we found things to be joyful about. It truly is a learned practice. We danced every day, we sang and we made amazing memories that now translate into my everyday – bring joy, find joy, BE joy. Some days, joy isn’t easily found, but it’s there. I remember joking with the doctors saying – my son is dying here, can we at least have a little fun?! I didn’t want Lewiston’s life to be centered on his impending death, everyone walking on tip toes with a cloud of sadness hovering over us all the time. Like how depressing is that? If I were dying I wouldn’t want it to be depressing; I would want to live as full as possible and make every day count. I would want to party and create memories.

We tried to do as much for Lewiston as we could, he was given a private country concert in the ICU with Dean Brody, a snowball fight, a trip to Vegas that the nurses in the Hospice “took” him on (he didn’t actually fly anywhere, they just created some cute signs, took pictures and slipped $5 bills in his diaper to make it look like he put on a ‘Magic Mike’ show.) It was super thoughtful and very epic. They even made a marriage certificate for Lewiston to marry his favorite nurse. Our medical team really knew that we wanted to make it joyful and fun for Lewiston, each day after his bath we had a dance party. It was simple but something to truly look forward to. His life was enriched, and we’re grateful we learned how to make each moment count. Joy is a practice.

What tools do you now have in your toolbox to deal with challenging times that others can add to theirs?

I’m still learning this one but… stop stressing out over the small things. Is it life threatening – no? Then don’t stress. Even if it’s life altering, added worry isn’t going to help the situation. Learning to let go of the small stuff can be really, really difficult but at the end of the day, sometimes you just have to let it be.

"If you want something, speak your mind and go after it. You can’t sit on the sidelines and expect things to get resolved."

All of these skills and tools take practice. Choosing joy, choosing movement, choosing your health. The small decisions add up. They may seem minor in the moment but over time they really do add up.

You value fitness, as a spin and Lagree instructor, did it help you deal? If so, how?

Teaching got me back into a routine, which was great but, to be honest, it was a struggle. I went back to teaching 2 months after Lewiston passed and initially it was good, however it became tough teaching and motivating others. It requires a lot of energy, and grief also requires a lot of energy, so I had to find a balance. I listened to my body and my heart, as I didn’t have the energy to inspire and lift others up. Dealing with that was hard on me as I felt some shame about having to take a break so soon after going back to teach, but I now see there is nothing to be ashamed of. Each day I’m grateful I get out of bed, choosing to get out there and do what I can. The best part of teaching though is connecting with those that so graciously supported our family and to getting my butt moving!

“I just dreamed really big. I surround myself with the most fun and creative people. I pictured what I wanted people to walk away feeling.”

Your fundraising efforts have been really fun and creative. How did you come up with them? 

LOL well I’m a little crazy. Seriously, I just dreamed really big. I surround myself with the most fun and creative people. I pictured what I wanted people to walk away feeling. Our events aren’t just about raising money but about inspiring others to live big, bold lives, to savor every moment. When an idea pops into my head I don’t stuff it away, instead I allow it to percolate, swirl, and evolve. In my mind I paint a picture of what I would see, do, and feel at an event. I’ll also call a friend with an explanation of my wild idea so it never gets lost, this is a great strategy for keeping me accountable.

My BIG goal is to have Justin Timberlake at one of our next Love for Lewiston events, maybe, for the next “Ride the Roof”, he drops in via helicopter and sings “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. It’s super crazy and I’ve been laughed at many times for saying it. I’ve even been told that his song is, and I quote, “stupid and a kids song for babies” but this song IS what carried us and brought us a ton of joy. All the nurses knew the dance moves and always came down the hall to have some fun with us. It was truly the best part of the day. It IS going to happen…. I just don’t think Mr. Timberlake knows that yet.

What are your plans for Love for Lewiston?

This year it’s to raise $100K by December 31, 2017. We’ve raised just over $65K and I’m confident it’s possible. As for our 5 and 10-year goals, we are in the planning stages with the Love for Lewiston board. It really does take a team to make it all come together. I do dream of building a wing in Lewiston’s honor for pediatric neuro-muscular treatment here in Calgary because I know it’s needed. I long to find a cure so no family has to go through what we went through. We lived every day wondering, “is today the day that he might take his last breath?”. It was very scary and sometimes I didn’t want to leave to go to the bathroom because what if when I left he couldn’t swallow or his lungs finally decided they had nothing left and he did take his last breath and I missed it. My hope, my wish, is to protect all families from this and to prevent any other children from having to suffer.

I truly believe that our foundation isn’t just about SMA and finding a cure. It’s inspiring others to live big, joyful lives. If you ask those who’ve been touched by Lewiston and his story I believe they would say that he taught them to squeeze tighter, love deeper and dance longer. Lewiston brought communities together and wow did the Calgary fitness community step up. This is a disease that robs the body of movement and so we are endeavoring to be advocates of health and movement, not taking what you have for granted, and using it to the best of your ability.

What goals do you have for yourself?

It wasn’t until I came across a goal-setting book that I got really serious about completing goals. My husband and I have, for the past 4 years, written out goals, only to forget about them until a month before Christmas or when we sat down in January again to hash out our next year.

I have 3 top priorities that I’m currently focused on. The first is our Love for Lewiston Foundation. This is where I pour the love for my son into keeping his legacy alive. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve set a goal of raising $100,000 by December 31, 2017. To support this goal, we’ve designed and manufactured sweatshirts and with all proceeds going towards the foundation. The first run sold out and we’re in the process of restocking. (As a side note, I am not a clothing designer, just a girl who knows what she wants and has message to spread. This project was way bigger and harder than I ever thought it would be.)

My second goal is to launch my blog, a space to encourage others to live their fullest lives, a space to share my favorite products, our family life, workouts and health tips, and a journal for our journey through grief. I’m in the middle of writing my book and look forward to launching it next year Lord willing. It’s a tough project as I relive so many precious moments with Lewiston while I write.

Third, I’m working on a fitness opportunity with Fit Radio, an app to get you moving, with the most incredible music. They’ve asked me to write a series for them and I couldn’t be more excited!

My list is long, I could go on forever with goals, but this is what’s right in front of us. We dream of expanding our family and having more children which ever way they come, continuing to travel and explore and possibly opening our own restaurant one day.

My husband and I feel called now to live full lives that inspire others. To move, to dream and pursue all that is in store for them and more. We’re living proof that in the midst of heartache, in the lowest of lows, love and joy can be found. Life can be beautiful and anything can be achieved.

~Oil & Grain for HEMM

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  • Ashton Turner: September 29, 2017

    You are amazing Jessica!!! Miss you! What a beautiful person who continue to be.

  • Natalie: September 28, 2017

    Very very inspiring , beautiful soul , beautifully written .

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