Joanne Kelleher

A past environmental education camp counselor. A retired Spanish teacher of 29 years in both private and public high schools as well as college. Currently a mentor for Spanish teachers in Detroit who are working for Teach for America, as well as a teacher of meditation at the Huron Valley Women’s Prison. An enthusiastic player of games of all kinds. A birder. A “total cat person.” A cyclist who once peddled around the perimeter of the United States, visiting 28 states and one Canadian province in all. The wife of Brad Zebrack, and mother of 14 year old Sierra Kelleher, resident of Ann Arbor and enthusiastic pickle ball player. That about sums it up for Joanne. Except for the rest of her story.

While working at an environmental education camp in Sebastopol, California, Joanne met another counselor, Brad Zebrack. Joanne had grown up in Berkeley, and graduated from UCBerkeley and Brad was from Los Angeles, a graduate of UCLA. After working closely together at the camp for 9 months, Brad invited Joanne to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with him and his family in Los Angeles. A wonderful holiday visit, however, turned bleak when a lump on Brad’s throat was biopsied and it turned out to be Hodgkins Disease, essentially a cancer of the lymph system. With this news, Brad remained in L.A. to begin treatment while Joanne returned to Berkeley. But their relationship continued and grew stronger over the 11 months Brad was undergoing chemotherapy. Joanne flew or drove to Los Angeles many times to be with Brad and his family, they spoke often on the phone and they wrote each other long letters.

When Brad returned to Berkeley to recover from the 11 months of treatment and resume his job at the environmental education camp, he and Joanne discussed the idea that if Brad could take a year out of his life to recover from cancer, then he might also be able to afford a year off to actually do something he loved to do. So Brad and Joanne planned a bike trip around the United States, literally around it. They got sponsorship from the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS,) speaking dates were arranged at cancer centers and hospitals, and off they went carrying between the two bikes about 110 pounds of gear. They averaged 50 miles a day, and were on the road for one year and two weeks. They spent the summer in the Northwest, fall in the Northeast, winter in the Southeast (52 days in Florida including all the way to Key West), and spring in the Southwest.

Joanne and Brad raised over $25,000 for NCCS, spoke to enthusiastic audiences made up largely of health care professionals (nurses, social workers) and, significantly, large numbers of young cancer patients and their families, all the while peddling most of the day, sleeping in backyards when invited, camp grounds, fire station lawns. They even spent one night in a Louisiana jail. They found the majority of people to be very welcoming and interested in their unique odyssey.

The bike trip was much more than just a bike trip. The essential message of the presentations Joanne and Brad gave was about survivorship. This was 1989, and it was then a relatively new concept. Most people at that time tended to regard cancer as a “death sentence.” Part of the goal of the trip was to meet young cancer patients and their caretakers, and to talk about how Brad had survived his cancer AND the treatment, and about Joanne’s role as a caregiver, and how she learned to cope with the stress and hardships that come with that task.

During the time Brad was recovering he had been struck by the absence of young people in his support groups. He was 24 at the time. What, if anything, was available to help young people and their families cope with cancer? Following the bike trip, this interest led him to Berkeley where he completed the Master’s degree program in both Public Health and Social Work. Eventually he chose the University of Michigan to enter its unique dual degree doctoral program in Sociology and Social Work.

Joanne and Brad lived in Ann Arbor from 1994 to 1999 and while Brad worked on his Ph.D, Joanne earned a Master’s in Spanish Literature and continued teaching in the public schools. They returned to CA in 1999 to live in LA for nine years.

When the U of M called Brad out of the blue to offer him a tenured position in the School of Social Work (#1 in the country!) Brad was willing and Joanne was delighted to leave Los Angeles for Ann Arbor, preferring to get away from a city where “there is so much superficiality – and “you’re always in the car.” By then they had a 5 year old daughter, Sierra, and preferred raising her in Ann Arbor. Almost ten years later, Brad is now a Full Professor and has become a widely-recognized activist scholar. Much of his work centers on the development of peer support and advocacy groups for adolescent and young adult cancer survivors.

Two cats, Cal and Jaz, have graciously accepted Joanne, Brad, and Sierra as staff – people who provide the essentials of a comfortable life for them.

Joanne began playing pickle ball just last May, then left in December for Australia where Brad had received a Fulbright Scholarship to work and collaborate. They just returned to Ann Arbor this past Memorial Day. So Joanne has only a few months of pickle ball experience, but loves the game.

The most challenging aspect of pickle ball for Joanne has been overcoming some physical aches and pains, and not overextending too much. She also says a real challenge is “to avoid swearing.” She admits to a proclivity toward this, and has vowed to overcome it. She thinks all the people that play are really nice. I can swear that I’ve never heard Joanne swear on the pickle ball court – and that’s pretty much true, I swear it. Maybe she will surprise one of us soon after committing three unforced errors in a row. That’s cause enough!

Joanne hopes to visit the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador – 181 species of birds there.

Joanne Kelleher is 56 years old.

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