Make-A-Wish, Starbucks make poignant moment of connection possible for teen with cancer

Story by Linda Dahlstrom; photos by Nicholas Serpa / Starbucks Newsroom

It was a ritual they both loved. In the mornings, starting in kindergarten, Aubrey Everett and her aunt would stop for a treat at Starbucks on their way to school. It was their special time together.

Aubrey’s mom, Willa Fowler, was a single parent who had to be at work early, so she relied on her sister, Laura Weston, who lived with them in Asheville, N.C., to help.

Weston, or Lala, as Aubrey calls her, would get her ready for school, put her in the car and then drive to Starbucks. They didn’t always make it to school in time, noted Fowler, who learned about the duo’s morning ritual after seeing a lot of tardies on Aubrey’s report card and asking what was going on. (“I had to tell (Weston) that start time is not a just a suggested time,” she joked.)

But those mornings are some of Aubrey’s favorite memories, she said. Life was simple then, with few worries. It was before her aunt moved away to Utah, a time before adult realities began to set in. It was a time before she got cancer.

Aubrey, now 16, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in August. What Fowler suspects now were symptoms started about a year earlier – various aches and pains that would come and go, occasional night sweats and unexplained fevers. But all those things always resolved fairly quickly so the family wasn’t too concerned. It wasn’t until Aubrey developed swollen lymph nodes that a doctor did a scan.

Fowler remembers the day she picked up her daughter’s medical report to take it to their doctor. Curious, she opened it as she stood in the parking lot. “It referred to a mass and it said ‘Indicative of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.’ I felt sick,” she remembered. “I just thought, this has to be wrong. My child can’t have cancer.”

Fowler called her sister, who now lives in Salt Lake City. The moment is frozen in time for Weston, who recalls exactly where she was standing in her back yard the moment she heard the news. “I just couldn’t say anything for a long time,” she said.

Over the course of the next month, Aubrey had a biopsy which confirmed the diagnosis, surgery to place a port and began chemo. “It was like a terrible dream,” Fowler said.

The family, which now also includes Aubrey’s stepdad, Billy, and stepsister, Alyssa, who is 9 months older than Aubrey, was determined to stay positive and focus on the next steps.

But “plenty of times I’ve been crying in the bathroom,” said Fowler.

Since then, Aubrey has had five rounds of chemo, each one 21 days long. For four of those she had to be hospitalized, with Fowler with her at every turn, sleeping at night in her daughter’s hospital room or at the foot of her bed when they were at home in Asheville. Aubrey lost her long, thick hair as the doctors threw all they could at the cancer. “They said it was it was the kitchen sink of chemo,” said Aubrey. “I was very nauseous all the time.”

As a distraction, Aubrey and her mom binge watched TV shows that could transport them to another place, shows like “Frasier” and a Hallmark Channel show called “Cedar Cove,” both set in Seattle.

That’s why, after she finished treatment and the Make-A-Wish Foundation reached out and asked her what she’d want to do if she could do anything, she asked if she could go see Seattle.

Over the weekend, that’s just what they did. The Make-A-Wish Foundation flew the family out to Seattle to have dinner at the Space Needle, take a harbor tour, and visit the Starbucks Roastery and the original store.

Monday morning, Aubrey posed for photos with her mom in front of the store, located in Pike Place Market when suddenly, someone else jumped into the picture with her – her Aunt Lala, whom Make-A-Wish had flown in as a surprise to recreate their early Starbucks experience. Instantly, the two were in each other’s arms as their tears flowed.

Then they walked into the store and met store manager Cora Carter and district manager Adam Modzel, who led them in a coffee tasting and taught Aubrey to make a latte.

“Just to see her standing there so happy versus what she went through the last six months is amazing,” said her stepdad, Billy Fowler.

A few hours later, after taking a break back at their hotel, the family visited the Starbucks Support Center. They toured the corporate headquarters and participated in a tasting in the cupping room, where each day, coffee from around the world is sampled. As coffee master Aaron Robinson was explaining the process, Starbucks chief executive officer Kevin Johnson stepped into the room – surprising the family and bringing tears to Weston’s eyes. He presented Aubrey with her own Starbucks green apron, embroidered with her name.

“There’s a secret in these aprons,” Johnson said as he slipped the apron over Aubrey’s head. On the inside, where Starbucks partners will see it each time they put the apron on, are the words “We create inspired moments in each customer’s day.” “It reminds us what we are here to do,” Johnson told her.

Valuing each moment of connection has been something that Aubrey has taught the family, they say. For her part, Aubrey, whose aunt describes her as “an old soul,” said cancer has made her more compassionate. “You just don’t know what someone is going through,” she said.

She completed chemo in December – hopefully for good. Among her treatments were experimental therapies for immunotherapy, which uses the body’s immune system to attack cancer. The doctors think she has a good prognosis, said Fowler.

Aubrey will have a scan next month, but the family says they are trying to stay grounded in the moment, and the joys small and large that come their way.

“Now I realize more than ever how important and precious time is,” said Fowler. “I want to live in the moment and not worry too much about the future so much.”

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11 fun facts (and 1 surprise!) about Starbucks new collectible merch