When her fellow teachers at Holliman Elementary School asked Joan Wilkinson what she would like as a retirement gift she knew. She asked them to help her pull a jet plane. This was no ordinary plane, …
When her fellow teachers at Holliman Elementary School asked Joan Wilkinson what she would like as a retirement gift she knew. She asked them to help her pull a jet plane. This was no ordinary plane, but a whopping 72 ton 757 FedEx jet.
Joan was diagnosed with MS when she was 46 years old. In a way that a blessing because at that time there were four treatments for the disease. That was not the case for her older brother in-law. There were no known treatments at that time and today Joan thinks of him as “the face of MS.” He gets around with a walker and a wheelchair.
Joan has no visible sign of her affliction, and she has been free of episodes thanks to medications and the “best medical team from Rhode Island Hospital.” She has also witnessed advancements in the treatment of MS, observing that since her diagnosis the number of potential treatments have grown from four to 26.
It’s a reason why Joan works to raise funds for the MS Society — she has participated in the MS Challenge and why she knew of the MS Jet Pull Saturday morning at Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport. After seeing traffic stopped to look at the pull, and viewing news reports on the annual fundraising event, she knew she wanted to do it. But the pull is not something to take on singularly. She wanted to put together a team of 25 who collectively could raise a minimum of $1,500. It became her retirement wish.
Joan started her teaching career in 1990 as a substitute when an early retirement program prompted a wave of retirements across the state. She started teaching kindergarten at Cedar Hill School where she was based for ten years before moving on to Holliman. In the course of her career she taught all grades with the exception of fourth grade. She had no preferred teaching level, saying each grade level had its challenges and rewards.
“In every situation, I felt it was time for me to do this,” she said.
It was somewhat the same thing when it came to putting a team together. It was the right time, but it was also a “whirlwind” of activity.
She was supported by her daughters Tara and Elizabeth. In a post on the MS website they set a goal of raising $3,000 in donations.
“The MS Challenge Walk became an important part of our MS journey,” they wrote. “Mom chose to keep her diagnosis private for most of two decades. Yet, our “walk family” knew. This afforded us a safe space to learn from others and be supported. The MS Society has been a resource for medication information, symptom confirmation and community resource for our family. The research they do has afforded Mom the opportunity to manage her MS through medication - shots for a number of years and eventually an oral option.”
Joan found herself in the midst of building a team- the Wilkinson Warriors — and fundraising. She didn’t attempt a training session, after all where would you find a jet to practice with, but she did have a strategy. Younger and stronger team members would be positioned at the front of the tow line as well as anchors at the end. Other members would fill slots in between. The key, she said, is once the jet starts moving is not to stop. The pull is timed with the winning team recording the best time. The fastest pull in the history of the event was in 2017 of 5.54 seconds according to the MS website.
The second phase of the pull and its goal is fundraising. On that score Joan had a super team.
The weather threw a curve into the pull. With the forecast of rain on Saturday that would have made for slippery conditions on the tarmac, the pull was cancelled and participants were invited to a celebration at Zitto's Pizza Bar on Main Avenue for pizza and to get their shirts and turn in any last minute donations.
Joan’s team would have been at the pizza bar, but they had other plans. Tara who had flown in from Alabama for the jet pull stopped at Zitto’s to collect the orange shirts of team members and drove to Chelo’s where the team held a luncheon and retirement party.
Tara had exciting news for the Warriors as they arrived at Chelo’s. While the team hadn’t strained to pull a jet, they had outdone themselves. They raised $11,777 to make them the top team in this year’s Jet Pull. Totally, the event raised more than $85,000.
Joan says she and her husband are enjoying the leisurely pace of retirement. They’re not planning to take a jet anywhere. But Joan said the MS FedEx Jet Pull remains on her bucket list. What’s more, she said, the Wilkinson Warriors are talking about doing it next year.