Jessica Olma is a 16-year-old sophomore at Cholla High Magnet School and a newly published writer. Her wrenching personal story of how she grappled with her little sister's cancer appears in the magazine 110 Degrees: Tucson's Youth Tell Tucson's Stories, issue No. 5, to be published June 3. Olma was only in fifth grade when her sister, Sonya, came down with leukemia. In her piece, "Angry Cells," Olma recounts how she reacted angrily to the illness. She resented her mother's efforts to stay cheerful; she hated spending time at the hospital; and she was jealous of all the extra Barbies and attention her sister got. But she developed a new outlook when her mother helped start FACT: Families Against Cancer and Toxins, a parent-advocacy group that calls for research into possible environmental causes of the disease. The annual magazine, a project of the nonprofit Voices Inc., features writing and photography by 18 local teens. The young authors celebrate the publication of their work with a free launch party and readings beginning at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, June 2, at Pima Community College West Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Snacks and beverages provided.
How's your sister doing now?
She's good. She's been in remission about three years. She's 14; she'll be 15 in September. Now we get along pretty well, for the last year. But sometimes, we fight. My sister had some issues with my writing about her cancer. She was a little hesitant. She said, "I don't want pity. I want to move on."
Was it hard to write about the illness and its impact on your family?
Definitely. On my way to the first interview (to get the Voices job), I looked at my mom. She said something that hit me: "Everyone in the family has moved on and let go of the pain but you." I thought it would be easy to write. I turned my thoughts about everything that happened into this story. I had emotions--anger toward my sister's cancer, anger toward my mother, anger that it could be caused by something in the environment. It was amazing to let it go. But the story did that for me: finding my voice. It was a good thing to be writing about. It could help other people. It took me a long time. I had to shorten five years and write it like a newspaper feature story. It took me from December to April.
Is your mom still working with FACT?
No, she's backed away. She brought it up publicly (the environmental question). She's a whistle-blower and a baton-passer. She's not confrontational. She was a co-founder, but FACT is still going. My mom was on the news; she was fairly involved. My mom and my sister felt some tension with the doctors after that. One researcher thinks there's something wrong, but a lot of the doctors don't want to know about (a possible environmental link).
What was it like to work for Voices?
I learned so much. It's partly people talking to you. ... It's so much more than the writing. They give you one-and-a-half months of training. I learned to use a digital camera. I learned how to interview and research topics, then go out and interview. They really pay you too, about $5.50 an hour. It's nine hours a week.
Did you take the photographs that go with your story?
Yeah, I have a portrait of my sister. There's also one of me and my sister making dinner. There's an old picture of when my sister was losing her hair.
How's high school going?
I switched schools last year and went to Cholla. My first year, I went to Howenstine. It's OK, but it's really small. But it was a great experience working with the special-ed (students at Howenstine). But Cholla, I love Cholla. My ex-boyfriend got me to go. I ended up really liking it. I'm seventh in my class this year. That's a big achievement in a school of 1,700 and a class of 450.
What about next year?
We're selling our house and moving to North Carolina, to Hickory, outside Charlotte. My dad got a job there. I'm opposed. We went to North Carolina at the end of April. It's so green. I didn't like it. I'm a desert rat.
Are you planning on going to college?
Of course. All my life, I've been into writing. I don't know if it's a career I'll pursue. And I've gotten into photography through Voices. Maybe I'll be a nurse or a doctor. I have a strong religious background. Maybe I'll go overseas on a mission to minister. I'll be a nurse, minister and travel. I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about getting through high school.