Friends huddled close together, holding candles by the University of Massachusetts campus pond Thursday night to honor the life of Janelle Lavender Tobin.
On Nov. 24, alongside her loving family, Tobin passed away at her home in Danvers, Mass. following a seven-month battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
The 22-year-old is fondly remembered by friends and family as a fighter and someone who could light up a room with her ever-present smile.
More than 50 people attended the vigil Thursday put on by the UMass Ski and Board Club, consoling one another and sharing fond memories.
Tobin was diagnosed on April 10 during her junior year at UMass, and began treatment just three days later.
She is survived by her mother Janis, her father Patrick and her sister Holly, among numerous extended family members.
Having had skis on her feet since the age of four, joining UMSBC was one of the first things Tobin did when she arrived at the University.
Holly, her younger sister, said skiing was one of her favorite activities, along with yoga and living a healthy lifestyle. As a family, the Tobins often went on ski trips to New Hampshire.
She fit right in to the UMSBC family, applying to be a board member for the club shortly after joining.
“It was totally her character to dive into something she wanted to be involved with. There definitely are freshmen board members, but she was someone that stuck out and immediately was a part of the gang and a part of the crew you would hit up when you were going skiing,” said Lauren Bolduc, a former member of UMSBC. “She just jelled immediately and we wanted her around, so it was an instant type of appreciation.”
Moving quickly through the ranks of the club, Tobin was co-president of UMSBC until the very end of her battle.
A statement prepared by Tobin’s mother was read at the vigil by fellow club member Emily Beffa.
“Janelle always said the two best decisions she made were going to UMass and joining the Ski and Board Club,” her mother wrote. “Janelle lived with many of her friends from Ski and Board Club, and eventually those friends became family. These friends were by her side throughout her battle with cancer. Thankfully many lived and worked in the Boston area and were regulars at Mass General Hospital and our home.”
UMSBC co-president, Tanios Abi-Saad, said Tobin was “someone that I could just come to and feel better, even if I didn’t have anything important to talk about. She had the ability to just, by her presence, turn your mood around and make you feel positive and good.”
“Ski club definitely has a reputation for being super close, we joke around like ‘ski fam,’ but it’s totally legit. Being in ski club with Janelle was bliss. It was so fun,” Bolduc said.
Bolduc, a 2018 graduate of UMass, as well as a close friend and roommate of Tobin, admired her passion for the things she took interest in.
“Janelle, if she wanted something, she worked for it or went out and got it. She was the most motivated, ambitious person I know,” she said.
“Just being with her, she had this presence that was just so special and just made everyone around her feel at ease,” Jack Steinberg said.
Tobin and Steinberg met and became friends quickly during their freshman year at UMass, after joining UMSBC together.
Steinberg described her as “energetic, outgoing. She was caring, she could talk to anyone, she was friends with everyone, she knew everyone. You could tell her anything and she would listen without judgement.”
He recalled a particular memory with her, driving to UMass for New Year’s Eve their junior year.
“The whole time we talked and it was so genuine,” he said of the trip back to school. “We talked from things like what had we done at the beginning of our break, to just like talking about our family lives and talking about just general life philosophy and current issues. She was just such a well-rounded, spiritual person that could talk to anyone, and engage with everyone.”
Stelliana Benson, a 2018 graduate of UMass, considered Tobin one of her best friends. She met Tobin at a birthday party during Tobin’s freshman year and soon after, “we were basically inseparable at Killington College Week, which is a week-long ski trip put on by Ski and Board.”
Benson knows Tobin will be remembered “as someone who was always smiling and laughing, and always saw the good in anyone she interacted with. She’s just so positive about everything. Even throughout her cancer she was always smiling. Whenever I would go visit her she never cried.”
Benson said Tobin was originally very private about her diagnosis, and only told her housemates at first.
“She wanted everyone to know that she was really strong and she was a fighter, and that she wasn’t going to let this overcome her,” she said.
While at UMass, Tobin was also an involved member of Protect Our Breasts.
Shannon Largey, a 2017 graduate of UMass and a member of POB met Tobin during the spring of her freshman year.
A friend of Tobin’s brought her to an annual yoga-thon put on by the organization and Largey said “she fit right in.”
“Janelle was decked out in her yoga gear and was so ready, so excited,” Largey said.
Tobin interviewed a few weeks later for a position on the National Board of POB, taking up the social media content coordinator position before studying abroad in the fall of her junior year.
“When I found out she passed I was reading through old text messages and I found the one where she told me [about her diagnosis]. I was shocked, she was my organic buddy,” Largey said.
Tobin majored in marketing at UMass, and her sister said her dream was to one day open an organic product store.
“A couple hours into the day, it took the wind out of me,” said Bolduc, about learning of Tobin’s diagnosis in the spring. “You know, that’s your friend, but it was one of those things too where she completely propelled the rhetoric that this was a fight and that she was engaging, and that she was going to do everything in her power to push through this. And she did.”
Throughout her journey battling cancer, Tobin’s supporters became known as Team Janelle.
A GoFundMe page was created for Team Janelle in July, and as of Nov. 30 it has raised $50,677 toward the $50,000 goal. The money raised will go to the Tobin family.
During her battle, Tobin made bracelets that said “Team Janelle – beat Sarcoma” and sent them to everyone involved with the team.
Tobin also started a blog to document her adventures while studying abroad in Amsterdam in the fall of 2017. After being diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, Tobin transitioned the blog to document her battle with cancer.
Despite the toll cancer took on Tobin, even in her final months fighting, she had a positive outlook on life.
“Going into the fall and Thanksgiving season, I just want to remind every[one] to take a moment and be grateful for their health and the little things they are able to accomplish each day,” she wrote in a blogpost on Oct. 9. “My parents have been my complete caregivers taking care of me every moment of every day and for that, I am beyond grateful.”
Holly Tobin described Janelle’s wish to be at home at the end of her journey as a blessing and a curse.
“For us to be able to provide her with the most comfort that she could have during that time was, I guess comforting to us in return,” said her sister, a sophomore studying health science at Sacred Heart University. “You obviously don’t want to watch someone you love go through that, but I think her approach and how optimistic she was and how determined she was to beat cancer was really inspiring.”
In her eulogy, Holly Tobin said she talks about the irony of her sister’s diagnosis.
“She was always very active. She always lived a healthy lifestyle. She ran a couple half marathons, was into yoga and skiing; she definitely cared about her body,” Holly Tobin said.
Tobin’s funeral service will be held in Danvers at the Maple Street Congregational Church on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 9 a.m. Relatives and friends are invited.
“Janelle was so many things to so many people. We have enjoyed the outpouring of love and stories of how people knew her and how she made an impression on them, and impacted their lives,” Tobin’s mother said in her statement. “She was everything anyone would want in a daughter or friend. We miss her so much already and we will continue to honor her for the rest of our lives.”
Hayley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos courtesy of Holly Tobin, Caroline O'Connor, Jack Steinberg and Facebook.