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Mike Handwork and Jessica Richie met in Gwinnett County in 1993 and married a year later at the young and hopeful age of 20. This was right on schedule for Jessica’s dream of celebrating 60 years of happy marriage surrounded by lots of kids and grandkids. In due time, Joseph was born followed by Danny a few years later.
Third son Seanan was born prematurely in 2005 and immediately diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder that prevents normal development in various parts of the body. Life-threatening heart defects required open-heart surgery in infancy, followed by ten more surgeries of various types over the ensuing years.
Mike’s exterminating business was hit hard by the 2008 housing crisis. They lost their home in Jefferson and moved to Toccoa, where Jessica’s family had deep roots. Eventually they moved into her grandfather’s childhood home set on long-held family land. The old house needed lots of work, but Mike had good construction skills and was willing and able to undertake the huge renovation.
In Toccoa, Mike rebuilt his business, and Jessica opened a small bookstore downtown. They welcomed two more sons – Nolan and Eammon. Mike was a hands-on dad and regularly had a boy or two working with him on any given day. Jessica home educated the boys between the house and the bookstore and somehow found time to pursue her passion for making pottery.
Early on the morning of August 14, 2014, Mike was working with some friends renovating an old outbuilding on their property to make a pottery studio for Jessica when he suddenly collapsed and died from Cardiac Arrest. An autopsy later revealed that he had an enlarged heart. Eammon was only four months old when Jessica found herself a widow at the age of 40 with five children and an ancient house still in need of many repairs.
Jessica leaned heavily on the Lord, her parents and her church family to deal with the shock and grief that followed. The demands of five boys at home left little time to sit still. Seanan had surgery to replace a failing heart valve six months later. Jessica continued to home educate, kept the bookstore going and eventually studied and took the necessary tests to run the exterminating business as well. Life without Mike was settling into a routine punctuated by overwhelming bouts with grief and a pervasive sense of loss.
Jessica found a lump in her breast in the summer of 2018. She immediately saw her doctor, who was concerned enough to order a biopsy. Jessica decided to go ahead with a long-anticipated mission trip to Albania with second son Danny and a group from church. While there, she got the devastating news that she had breast cancer.
Once again, life was in upheaval as Jessica learned to navigate the unwelcome world of cancer treatment. Again, friends and family rallied to support her and the boys. After nine long months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, Jessica was pronounced cancer-free the following spring.
Jessica’s faith and resiliency have not only enabled her to survive her own tragic circumstances but to serve others in many ways in her adversity. While in the midst of cancer treatment, she shared her story at a two-day women’s retreat. She has been back to Albania once, and since then, she and Seanan started an initiative that raised money for the installation of a handicapped elevator in a ministry center under construction in the village she visited. Through the bookstore, she started a “shop local” initiative to benefit small business in Toccoa. She established an art ministry in her church and has done local outreach at the local downtown art festival.
Joseph is now the primary operator of the exterminating company. Danny is 16 and runs a thriving lawn care business as well as helping Jessica at the bookstore and at home. Seanan has gained several inches due to two difficult surgeries to straighten his back with rods. Nolan and Eammon are each a handful on their own, learning at home and growing like weeds. They don’t remember their dad but love hearing stories about him.
There has been little money for further work on the house, and she still doesn’t have her own studio, but Jessica continues to make pottery. She sells her work under the name Big Heart Studio in memory of Mike.
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- Jane Thompson
Fundraising team: Friends of Jessica (5)
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