A Carbonear woman received the surprise of a lifetime when a total stranger offered her a trip halfway across the country to see her grandchildren in Fort McMurray.
Dale Thomas was working at the Customer Service desk in Walmart when a shopper handed her a plane ticket.
"I was never expecting that in a million years," she said. The stranger gave Thomas a card that read 'Presents around the tree, family around the table, love in your heart and a trip to Fort McMurray to see Madden and Jayda from me.'
The stranger was Annette Sparkes, a woman from Shearstown. Although the two women didn't know each other, they shared a common enemy: Batten disease, a rare group of fatal nervous system disorders that begin in childhood and get worse over time.
Sparkes' twin daughters, Rebecca and Andrea, were diagnosed with Batten disease in 2005, when they were four years old. "I remember the day the twins got diagnosed," Sparkes recalled. "I came home and I Googled it and the first word that came up was 'fatal'." Both girls passed away in 2008.
"It's a horrific disease for children," Sparkes said.
Madden, Thomas' grandson, also has Batten disease. "It's a neurological disease," she said. "It takes away our children. It takes away [their] ability to walk, to talk, to eat, to communicate. It's a relentless disease."
Madden was diagnosed with the disease two years ago, in December 2019. Thomas has seen him change a lot since then.
"Madden is regressing all the time," Thomas said.
"It's slowed down a bit now because he's receiving his treatments. But every time I go up there, I see a big change in him. Like, he used to call me Nan, now he don't talk to me, he don't call me Nan anymore because he can't say it. So it's a big change, and I'm missing so much, I just want to spend as much time with him as I possibly can."
Madden's experience with Batten disease is chronicled in a Facebook group called Madden's Fight. That's where Sparkes first heard about Thomas and her grandson.
Sparkes said she became inspired to help Thomas earlier this month, on the thirteenth anniversary of her daughter Rebecca's death. "I was out walking as I do, and I don't know, it just came to me that I got to help. Madden just came to me, and the girls were with me, and I just felt that I had to give Dale this ticket to go."
Earlier this year, Sparkes won two free flight tickets from the Children's Wish Foundation, after she raised over $4000 for the foundation's Walk for Wishes campaign. "I raised the most money in Newfoundland and Labrador," Sparkes said.
Although Sparkes initially thought about using the tickets to see her own friends and family, she decided it was more important for Thomas to have the ticket. "I know where they are as a family," Sparkes said. "I know that she needs to go and ... have some family time."
Sparkes says when she felt proud when she surprised Thomas with the flight. "I could have jumped to the moon," she said. "This is what Christmas is all about."
Sparkes says they're looking at booking the flights during the spring season. "My goal is to have [Thomas] fly first class to Fort MacMurray," Sparkes said. She's giving the other ticket to her mother, who will also be heading to Alberta to visit her sister and grandson.
As for Thomas, she says Sparkes is her "Christmas angel."
"The last two years, I've had to dig deep in my faith," Thomas said. "But, I'm telling you, I've regained my faith now."
"I'm honouring my girls, too," Sparkes said. "So that makes me feel really good."