The friendship that launched a car show: Creators, attendees reflect on sixth annual Mott event

Tuesday, August 6, 2019 - 1:09pm

Families and volunteers visit the over 60 cars during the sixth annual Caden’s Car Show at C.S Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan Saturday.

Families and volunteers visit the over 60 cars during the sixth annual Caden’s Car Show at C.S Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan Saturday. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Olivia Scott

On Sunday morning, around 150 kids, family members and more than 200 volunteers gathered on top of the parking garage at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan for the sixth annual Caden’s Car Show. 

The car show takes place every year during the summer and is preceded by a fundraiser the Friday before the show. Full Throttle, an organization focused on congenital heart research, raised around $68,000 dollars this year. 

The car show is a way to brighten the Mott patients’ day and to raise awareness for organ donation, according to Christine La Jeunesse, administrative director for Congenital Heart Center at Mott. La Jeunesse said she has helped plan the event for the past few years and said it positively impacts patients. 

“For the families in the hospital it’s time away from a difficult time in their life,” La Jeunesse said. “It’s sunshine and a sense of hope for the future. “

Caden’s Car Show grew out of a friendship between Jean Jennings, former president and editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, and Caden Bowles, a young boy born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which left him with half a heart. Caden had a passion for cars that rivaled most car experts, Jennings said, which was apparent to everyone he met. The fundraiser is named after a hand-drawn car newsletter Caden created. 

Meg Zamberlan, pediatric nurse practitioner and pediatric heart transplant program coordinator at Mott’s congenital heart center, called Automobile Magazine when Jennings worked as Editor in Chief, and Jennings decided to go and visit seven-year-old Caden. Caden was in the hospital with cancer resulting from anti-rejection drugs from the heart transplant he had when he was one. 

Jennings said when she walked into Caden’s room he was talking about Jaguar cars, and she was immediately taken with him. 

“I walked in that room and I could see the ball of light surrounding him,” Jennings said. “This kid was something to reckon with. He was so engaging, he was so amazing.” 

They quickly formed a friendship. Jennings said she brought him toy cars and books, and they wrote letters to each other after Jennings left.

At age 11, Caden was back in the hospital because his heart was failing. Heart transplants tend to last about ten years and Caden was approaching that benchmark. Doctors decided to give Caden an artificial heart while he waited on the donor list. During this time, Jennings came to visit him on his birthday on May 30.

“He looked up at the ceiling because he couldn’t look me in the face and said, ‘Where have you been? We haven’t seen each other in three years,’” Jennings said. “I just didn’t want to leave him that day either.”

When Jennings found out Caden was still in the hospital in July, she said she put together a little car show just for Caden during Ann Arbor’s Rolling Sculpture Car Show and brought an Aston Martin and a Dodge Viper to the hospital. The nurses brought Caden down to the valet circle at the front of the hospital, and Jennings helped him into the cars and revved the engines for him. 

Jennings wrote a column about Caden in Automobile Magazine’s fantasy issue about how her dream was that everyone would become an organ donor and Caden would get a heart, so she could put together a larger car show for him. Unfortunately, the heart never came, and Caden passed away on Sept. 11, 2013. 

Jennings said she sat down with Zamberlan after Caden had passed and began to plan the event she had written about, which grew into the annual Caden’s Car Show. 

According to La Jeunesse, the cars for the show are professionally curated by car expert Rusty Blackwell, who helps identify cars and choose a wide variety to create a fun and interesting car show. Blackwell also worked for Automobile Magazine alongside Jennings. 

The event began with opening statements from Chris Dickinson, Chief Medical Officer and Interim Executive Director, and Jennings to all the volunteers. Then, the show began. Kids who are healthy enough made their way to the top floor of the parking garage, where they were announced as they came out of the elevator. 

The children and their families made their way around the cars, where some car owners gave the children posters or goody bags and let the kids sit in the front seat of the cars. Around 20 companies and groups partnered with Caden’s Car Show, including teamGM Cares, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Wolverines for Life. 

Over 60 cars were featured in the car show, some of which were from private collections and others directly from the car manufacturers. On the rooftop were cars such as a 1907 Ford Model K, a truck painted to look like Tow Mater from Disney’s “Cars” and a Rolls Royce. 

A car from the University’s MCity, the University’s automated car project, was also featured, as well as two Michigan student group cars. Grace Stridick, an engineering senior and member of the University’s electric car team, heard about the event on the radio and thought their electric racing car and baja car would be a perfect fit for the event. 

“We love showing off our car and what we do,” Stridick said. “Just making kids’ days and just brightening the patient’s day (is what drew us to this event).” 

For the kids who cannot make it outside due to their health, there are also events inside the hospital, such as car designers who visit the children and sketch out the children’s dream cars and virtual reality type activities. 

In the valet circle outside of Mott, there were a few more cars, including a full-size Batmobile made of Legos and the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. Bowen Hammitt, an eight-year-old with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, was at valet circle with his family. His mother Sarah Hammitt said Bowen and his three siblings were excited to see all the cars and to spend time outside of the hospital room.  

“He’s recovering well from the third stage (of restorative heart surgery), he’s five days post-op,” Hammitt said. “This great to just get him out and get him moving.”

One out of 100 births are children with heart defects, and the money raised from Full Throttle as well as a ticketed public portion of the car show will go to congenital heart research. Mark Russell, a pediatric cardiologist at the University, was Caden’s doctor and works with children with heart conditions. He volunteers with the event every year and encourages people to become organ donors.

“This is a day of awareness of organ donation, heart transplantation, and just what the patients and families go through,” Russell said. “It’s really a special group of patients and it’s really about all families who are dealing with a chronic condition.”