Icing on the cake for sick children

Operation Sugar founder Rachel Jenkinson, left, with her family, Lilah 16 months, on her lap, Emily 6, husband Nick and son Blake, 4.
Operation Sugar founder Rachel Jenkinson, left, with her family, Lilah 16 months, on her lap, Emily 6, husband Nick and son Blake, 4.

A 13-year-old staring in awe at a Spider-Man cake that's bigger than him is enough of a reward for cake-maker Rachel Jenkinson. The founder of Operation Sugar talks to Sue Fea.


A Balclutha mum's love of cake decorating and her huge heart for sick kids have been the ingredients for what is now one of New Zealand's fastest- growing new charities - Operation Sugar.

Gore toddler Elliott Gulliver is excited over her Hungry Caterpillar birthday cake created by Michelle Hamlin, of Gore.
Gore toddler Elliott Gulliver is excited over her Hungry Caterpillar birthday cake created by Michelle Hamlin, of Gore.

A farm girl from Tuapeka Mouth in South Otago, Rachel Jenkinson fell in love with cake decorating at the age of 3 and it has been a favourite hobby since.

However, never in her wildest dreams did the St John Ambulance Balclutha staff member envisage where that would lead to.

A popular new charity was born when Jenkinson was dabbling in some cake decorating while pregnant with her third child in September last year.

"I'd heard of something similar overseas and thought, why don't I get a few people together and make special birthday cakes for sick children," she says.

"It's taken off like wildfire from Auckland to Invercargill."

In just over a year, Operation Sugar has more than 500 bakers, executive and pastry chefs and professional cake decorator volunteers on its books from around New Zealand, including some of the country's top chefs and culinary artists.

Between them, they've presented 200 very sick Kiwi kids, many of them in hospital, with the birthday cake of their dreams.

And these are no ordinary cakes, but huge colourful works of culinary art, fabulously decorated in realistic imagery bringing each sick child's specific fairytale dream alive.

But this extremely caring southern angel with an eye for the detail of delight was not about to stop there.

She has also managed to round up 300 professional photographers to volunteer their services to record that special moment of awe and delight on the face of each child.

This is the most precious gift she can give to families of sick kids who have unfortunately died.

"It's just so nice for them to have a professional photo to look back on," she says.

There have been many bitter-sweet moments. Like the darling 1-year-old girl in the North Island in need of a liver transplant, who did not survive.

"One of our volunteers made her a beautiful Dragon Princess cake. She was an adorable wee girl and her dad has kept in touch."

Volunteers are passionate about the cause and ensure every little feature is included to make their cake extra special for the child. Many have been known to work well into the wee small hours, even through the night, to finish the cake on time - in addition to their fulltime jobs.

There's huge excitement among volunteers when a cake request arises close to their location. They're all prepared to drive some distance to deliver the cake at their own cost.

Rotorua volunteers have been kept busy with a high number of sick kids needing a birthday wish there, and it's almost like a competition among the volunteers who are all champing at the bit for a cake need to arise.

"Te Papa executive chef Bernd Lippman has volunteered his services but, for some reason, we just don't get many requests from Wellington," Jenkinson says.

"It's such a fantastic cause," Lippman says.

"It's something you can just cheer kids up with or those who've been a bit hard done by who don't have much - it's a nice thing to do. As soon as I found out about it, I thought, 'I have to be part of it'."

Playing down her own talents, Jenkinson has been "blown away" by the calibre of cakes, like the giant Spider-Man cake made recently by Kevin Martin from Chocolate Earth in Auckland.

"We got a request with only two weeks to spare and he was very busy, but said he would squeeze something in. It was the same size as a real Spider- Man torso with lighting-up LED eyes."

"A cake like that would retail for more than $1000. It was absolutely amazing. We get the odd one like that that really humbles me."

Pinks and purples are popular with the girls and nothing has proved too much for these culinary wizards. Requests have included Pepper Pig, Ben 10, Angelina Ballerina, castles, Wiggles, a "fairy pirate", Elmo, Incy- Wincy Spider, boxing gloves and a Ford Falcon.

Gore toddler Elliott Gulliver, 1, was the delighted recipient of a fabulous three-tier Hungry Caterpillar cake created by Gore cake decorator Michelle Hamlin in July last year.

"It was pretty amazing. The Hungry Caterpillar was her first book given to her when she had her liver transplant at 8 months," says a grateful Mrs Gulliver.

"Operation Sugar does an amazing job. For people like us living in hospital for three weeks, not being able to think about birthdays, it really takes the load off."

Kilos of fondant, sugar, butter and other delicious ingredients have been poured out with all this love. Jenkinson says she couldn't have done it without the amazing generosity of Northland Kiwi Cakes owner and volunteer Sandra Boston. Kiwi Cakes donates and offers discounts for equipment and supplies and has played a huge role in promoting Operation Sugar.

Boston even offers scholarships of up to $700 each year to bakers or chefs who would love to contribute, but just can't afford to stump up for the expensive ingredients.

She recently whipped up a three- tiered Mermaid Cake for 10-year-old Katie Reed, who suffers from bronchiectasis.

"It was an absolute blast for me."

However, she says, it's Jenkinson who is the one deserving of praise.

"I'm very proud of Rachel."

She says Jenkinson deserves something good to come back to her, as she's sacrificed so much. "She's spent a lot of time and money for no monetary gain of her own."

It was Boston who nominated Jenkinson for Next magazine's Woman of the Year award, in which she was named a well-deserving finalist last year.

The pair were flown up to Auckland for the swanky awards ceremony and put up in a hotel for the night.

"Here I was sitting in between Juliet Haigh and Mahe Drysdale," laughs a humble Jenkinson.

But she's not in it for Olympic medals or accolades. This is a woman who, before having her children, used to rush off to deliver Meals on Wheels during her lunch hour at work. As soon as she got her first job, at 17, she signed up to sponsor a child in a Third World country.

When St John Ambulance needs catering for a function, Jenkinson does it voluntarily to help the organisation save money. She teaches Sunday school and is always first to put her hand up for charity street collections.

All this on top of working almost a fulltime job and spending about 20 hours a week in the evenings running Operation Sugar.

Even though her electrician husband has been unable to earn for three months, laid up recovering from serious back surgery after falling down the stairs carrying their toddler, Jenkinson is still grateful for her lot.

"The best thing about Operation Sugar for me is feeling like I'm doing something to contribute and help others. Even though we've had a rough few months, I'm so lucky with my kids," she says.

Initially the Jenkinsons paid all Operation Sugar expenses out of their own pocket.

"But I can see it will probably get to the point where it gets too big for me on my own," she says.

You'd think with all these cakes going on that the Jenkinson family would be well served for sweet treats, but not so.

"My husband says, 'I only get what's not good for export'," she laughs.

However, they're proud of all Jenkinson has achieved.

Just as importantly, Operation Sugar's efforts are a tremendous boost to the eternally grateful parents of the sick kids.

They say it's the little things like the cake of their dreams for a birthday that make these kids feel super special and brings a huge boost to their day.

These are tough kids, who have to endure some terrible procedures that most adults would balk at, and often their treatment is prolonged, painful and makes them very sick.

For these families, it's the taste of something much more than a sweet treat. For them it's the thrill of this amazing human kindness that's provides the icing on the cake.

That alone is reward enough for Rachel Jenkinson and her growing band of bakers.


The Southland Times