Vermonter’s legacy lives on in message of kindness

Published: Oct. 2, 2020 at 2:23 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A freak accident in 2018 claimed the life of a woman who grew up in Vermont, but her family turned that tragedy into a mission to share her passion -- sparking kindness in others.

“It was a long-standing joke -- the rivalries between Essex and Colchester,” said Mike Riordan, who met the love of his life his senior year at Essex High School. Jennifer attended Colchester High, but competition between the two schools couldn’t keep them apart. “Colchester High School was extremely important to Jennifer. Her letterman jacket is still in her closet, still remains in our closet today.”

The two fell in love and went to college in Vermont. “We’ve got longstanding roots in Vermont, from birth all the way to our first college degrees,” Riordan said. But the open road called and they headed out west to start a life and a family in Alburquerque, New Mexico. Riordan became the city’s chief operating officer and Jennifer worked in philanthropy at Wells Fargo. The job took her places and she left an impression everywhere she went.

“And that’s something I appreciate more and more every day -- how much courage it takes to be kind. But that was at her soul and her heart -- to make sure everyone in the room felt special and touched, like they were her best friends,” Riordan said.

But on one of her trips, the unthinkable happened. A freak accident on a Southwest Airlines flight caused a blade from the engine to break off, hurling shrapnel against the plane and knocking out Jennifer’s window. She was partially sucked out of the plane and died.

“Every moment was special with her and I miss... I miss going to events with her. I miss seeing how she talks to a room and makes everyone feel great. I miss her with our kids, throwing them up in the air, rooting them on for sports, every moment.,” Riordan said.

“They were soul mates. They were identical in their make up and character,” said Riordan’s sister, Jan Riordan, who lives in Vermont. The accident devastated the entire family, including the Riordan’s two children. Avery was 12 and Josh was 10 when their mom died.

“I miss the happiness between them. To see my brother living that life and seeing Jenn. They were on such a great path, doing great things for the community, so I miss that. I miss that they don’t have that. That’s hard for me,” Jan said.

But that community work continues. Riordan channeled his grief into something so important to Jennifer -- spreading joy. She’d often leave Post-It notes with words of encouragement in a lunch box, or on a desk or pillow. “We still cherish those and have them around our house now,” Riordan said.

And they’ve turned that commitment to kindness into a nonprofit -- The Jennifer Riordan Foundation. “It’s the closest thing we can do to have Jennifer here. Our motto is to recognize, support, and create acts of kindness. Every day she got up that was her goal,” Riordan said.

The foundation does charitable giving to causes that support kindness, love, caring, and sharing. It focuses on women’s empowerment, financial literacy, early childhood education, and community vibrancy, like supporting food shelves or holding blood drives, including one recently in South Burlington.

“She was still so loving and kind. The foundation is a great group of people that seem to be guided by, we’re feeling this guidance from Jenn,” Jan said.

They’ve even launched a kindness app to encourage people to do good deeds and to spread the word when they see one. And they’re taking their message on the road, touring the country and visiting nonprofits that share similar missions and people who give back to their communities. It’s the Spark Kindness Tour. Jan, who sits on the board, also sits behind the wheel.

“You can’t move and forget things, but you have to put some good things in place so you have a way to fill your heart again, because if you don’t have those things to do, you just dwell on the horrific situation,” Jan said.

They’ve partnered with Vermont Teddy Bear to bring some love along the way -- “Kindness Bears” as co-passengers to give out.

“It’s a distraction, but it feels good. And it’s the only thing that has felt good for the last two years. It’s a lot to cope with, and to know that the pain that exists, and find some good in it and have that so well received has been very, very rewarding,” Jan said.

Mike Riordan got their kids involved in the Foundation too as a junior board of directors to help with organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters. “Right now they are living the life that Jennifer wanted them to and that’s my goal for the rest of my life -- is to make sure that happens,” Riordan said.

And there’s a long road ahead and a lot more kindness to spread. “She’s a big spirit to live up to -- big personality, big heart. I only hope to do half as much as she would be doing if she were still here. But it’s something that keeps us close to her, so I’d like to think she’s proud of us, but I know she knows there’s more to do,” Riordan said.

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