'The Bear and the Owl' -- Documentary focuses on the difference that one person can make

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Richard Lillard, Mackenna Lillard and Joni Lillard pose for a photo in their Beloit home. Joni Lillard's story is being told through a documentary, "The Bear and the Owl."

BELOIT — When Joni Lillard recalls the year she spent her 7th birthday in the hospital, she doesn’t remember the countless needle sticks, medical tests or the numerous surgeries — she remembers the cards.

But one set of cards sticks out to her, which came from a man who would eventually become her friend: Robert Jensen.

“Bob had sent me a card from the time that I was seven to at least 15 years old, I’d say. He would make me cards and I would get one practically every day,” Lillard said. “I have boxes and boxes of cards and they’re all handmade.”

The art-teacher-turned-Clinton-School-District-administrator heard about the young sick girl after an article appeared in the Beloit Daily News. Her teacher had sent out a plea, asking for cards for Joni as she spent months in the hospital getting treatment. Jensen answered that plea, sending Joni a card nearly every day she spent in the hospital. Jensen sent her his special, easily recognizable cards regularly, just to put a smile on a young girl’s face. From then on, Bob and Joni shared a special connection. 

For someone who has been in and out of the hospital her whole life, totaling 41 surgeries in her 36 years, Joni doesn’t have the typical hatred for hospitals that you might expect.

In fact, going to the hospital is routine for Joni. She was born with VATER syndrome. VATER is an acronym that stands for the co-occurrence of various birth defects found in babies that are born with it. VATER manifests in different ways for different people. Joni has many of the various health problems associated with the syndrome.

“When I was born, my esophagus was connected to my lungs,” Joni said. “As soon as I was born, they had to do surgery.”

But this was just the first of her many health problems. Among them, Joni was also born with one kidney. She has since lost other organs because of infections, including her bladder. She has had dozens of surgeries to correct issues related to VATER, and then several more surgeries to cut out the infections from previous surgeries. She also routinely experiences pains similar to birthing pains, her doctors say, which again stem from some of the health problems with which she was born.

Although Jensen’s cards couldn’t fix Joni’s health problems, they did provide her comfort.

Joni wasn’t the only sick child Jensen comforted with his letters: over the years, Robert Jensen made handmade cards, children’s books and more for friends, family, and those in need in the community. To honor his good deeds, and Joni’s struggle, his daughter Jan Jensen and her husband Mark Davis are making a documentary to highlight Robert and Joni’s unique friendship.

Jan and Mark, of Tin Boat Productions, have been on the hunt to discover more information for the documentary: “The Bear and the Owl,” a name inspired by Joni’s love of bears and Robert’s love of owls.

“Everything back then was more innocent. It was a different time,” Jan said. “People would do nice things without having it be questioned.”

Nowadays, it’s rare for an older stranger to make cards for a young girl, Jan acknowledges; the culture of cynicism has grown after children have been kidnapped right off the streets. But the sole intent of Robert’s cards were about making a young child feel special, she said, and giving Joni something to look forward to each day. It was a time when this could still be seen as just a nice gesture from a friendly stranger.

She said as they continue to work on the documentary, they still are searching for connections within the Greater Beloit community. She said they hope to track down the postal worker who delivered Joni’s cards regularly, and often remarked on them to her. 

Bob Jensen died about a year and a half ago, but his memory is alive in the many cards, books and paintings he created over the years. The personal touch he added to the cards for sick children, the elderly, and others celebrating life events, encouraged many to not only save his cards, but to also reach out to Jan and her family after his death. 

Jan said her father made the cards, knowing that he made someone feel special. Making the cards, books and art was his way of unwinding at the end of a long day. To the end, he remained humble in his service to the community. 

“This is a way to honor my dad and also inspire people to do nice things when you don’t expect anything in return,” she said. “He always did nice things for people.”

Although she can’t say for sure, Jan said she has her suspicions that perhaps her father’s letters were inspired by his experience. Robert was stricken with polio as a child and spent a great deal of time alone in a hospital. It would also be within his character to say that he was just trying to make someone feel good. For Jan, she just hopes that in sharing this story, people will come away feeling inspired.

“This all started because somebody like her teacher Mrs. Schroeder thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could help this girl who’s sick,’” she said, adding that she hoped people felt moved to reach out to others after hearing about Robert and Joni. 

Jan said the documentary is a tribute to her father and to Joni, too, and the special friendship they shared. She said it also is a way of, hopefully, encouraging other people to pay it forward. Her husband Mark agreed.

“Isn’t this sort of what the holidays are really supposed to be about,” he said. “We’re waylaid by the notion of buying things for people ... It has really soured from what it originally maybe meant to be about. It’s about the idea of getting together, and helping people and giving people something personal. It means so much more than a gift card to Home Depot.”

Joni’s journey is far from over. She still has one more surgery scheduled to remove all the last of the infection and the abscess that has been causing her pain for almost 30 years. She said doctors are hopeful this will be her last. While some might get down-trodden by the routine doctor and hospital visits, Joni has remained positive. For her, this is just a part of life. She said she focuses on all she has, including her family, her husband Richard and their adopted daughter Mackenna, whom they took in when Mackenna’s parents couldn’t care for her anymore.

In spite of her positivity, Joni’s medical challenges have come at a cost. While not one to focus on the financial hardships, or on the physical and emotional toll a syndrome like this has, Joni said she and her family have lost their house, will lose their truck and recently filed for bankruptcy — which was the only way they could get the state to stop garnering Joni’s paychecks.

Joni’s brother Steve Vorass Jr. started a gofundme page at https://www.gofundme.com/jonisurgeryfund for those interested in helping Joni and her family pay for basic expenses, like groceries and medical costs.

Those who knew Joni or people connected to her and her family, most specifically the postal worker who delivered Joni’s cards, may contact Jan and Mark at janjensendavis@gmail.com.

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