by Mary Kathryn Rodrigue
Highly Edited by Nick Rauber
Life is about interaction with people, places, things, and experiences. We often float through our days trying to get to the next step, whether that is with work, relationships, or just the grocery list. Most of our lives are based upon our reaction to a few specific and significant events like our birthdays, wedding day, birth of a child, diagnosis of an illness, and death. We spend a lot of time trying to avoid the latter, yet it is funny how much we do not truly live, because we are afraid of death. But what if we were not afraid? What would you do? What is the next step you would take?
For Kathleen Settoon, that next step was paradise, literally. She was ready for her move to Hawaii with her boyfriend and soul mate. Kathleen was still in the mindset of dealing with a diagnosis of cancer in 2010, along with recovering from a relapse, but she had a choice. She could live cautiously or live freely. She chose to bravely take the next step, living life with her wings spread widely. She received the gift at such a young age, the gift of living vulnerably. Being in her early 20’s, she chose to live optimistically, learning how to purely laugh, openly love, and globally live.
Creating a nonprofit for young adults with cancer was a calling. Several people affected by cancer, including my husband, Drew Rodrigue, who lost his long fight four months after we were married at only 27 years old, closely surrounded me. Shortly after my husband’s passing, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with the same form of cancer Drew had, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Wanting to do something unique, I created a support network for young adults with cancer in the New Orleans area. The idea was simple. After locating four, passionate, like-minded people to compose our board, YATS Against Cancer was born in 2008. We began our grass roots discussions by simply meeting after work and talking about our unpredictable lives for hours. Everything had an unspoken undertone of the opportunity to explore our purpose in life, yet we rarely discussed cancer.
With the realization of something so precious, we were all are humbled by the YATS impact. After our 3rd annual fundraiser, we decided to use the money we raised to give someone a memory that is not obtained through generic assistance programs. We opted for something singular that would personalize a young adult’s individual journey with their cancer experience. We wanted to give someone the opportunity for his or her next step. We decided to buy Kathleen’s airline ticket to Hawaii.
As I stood in line at the Delta Airline counter at the Baton Rouge Regional airport, I thought about all the people calling their families and loved ones before and after their flights. Most people I observed were anxiously excited about their destinations and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Kathleen would use this ticket to board a plane that would bring her to the next step in her journey. She chose paradise and to accept the vulnerability of her plan as it unfolds.
Granting her the plane ticket was the first part. There needed to be a tangible component that would represent all of it, something that represented the journey. At that point, I made the connection to use a well-known local artist, Benjamin Bullins, who I had met through a mutual friend. His business, The Benjamin Collection, has incredible depth in creativity and ingenuity. Ben uses found objects and creates breathtaking artwork that causes emotions every time people see it. I knew instantly that Ben was the perfect fit for an extraordinary gift.
His concept of taking something that someone has no longer deemed beautiful and functional, then repurposing it into something more beautiful and functional is unparalleled. He gives these individual pieces new meaning and purpose filled with importance, resiliency, and hope. Qualities any survivor of cancer or of life in general can relate to and feel empowerment.
His airplane piece for Kathleen spoke volumes just upon first sight. The license plate wings represent the support of machinery that had been to Hawaiian paradise and had traveled back specifically for her. Those plates had scoured the land and journeyed the Hawaiian highways in search of a destination, just as she is going to do. The desk chair leg, which is the body of the plane, could have been from a great thinker that wrote novels about paradise, audited taxes of someone who traveled to paradise, or belonged to a teacher who taught students to believe in themselves. The pressed flowers showed the delicateness of her past. They were beautifully displayed and protected by glass to show the world their elegance and grace. The art piece was summed up by the phrase “Hou Kumu” stenciled on the side, which means “new purpose” in Hawaiian.
In presenting the piece to Kathleen, she studied it intently. She noticed each inch of thought that went into its development. The first words she uttered were how much he “knew her”. The talent of Benjamin Bullins does not just lie in his visible creations, but more in the unexplained emotional element that resides in each piece.
He once told me that he does not like to name his work with anything specific, because he wants the interpretation to be personal for the beholder. However, he is able to make something so intuitive, thoughtful, and graceful without a full analysis of his client. He is a true genius and the pleasure of working with him has been inspiring in itself. I thank him for sharing his art and grace with us. For more information on the work and personal story of Benjamin Bullins, please visit: www.thebenjamincollection.com.