NZ Woman's Weekly

Operation Sugar: extravagant cakes for terminally ill children

Photos: Shelley Povey, Jennifer Johnston-Clark, Julie Willetts

“I’m a 32-year-old mum of three who has always loved cake decorating. This passion has given me the ingredients to start up my own charity, called Operation Sugar, based in Balclutha. We bake extravagant dream birthday cakes for terminally sick children or young ones who have been suffering from a long illness.

Rachel Jenkinson with family

The busy mum with (from left) Lilah, Emily and Blake. / Photos: Shelley Povey, Jennifer Johnston-Clark, Julie Willetts

My husband Nick and I feel lucky our kids, Emily (7), Blake (4) and one-year-old Lilah are all healthy. When I see the battles some families go through, it makes me want to do what I can to give them a break from the stress, even if it takes their mind off things for just a moment. What better way to do that than to provide them with a dream cake on their child’s birthday?

My aunty was a cake decorator. When I was a child, I loved going through her books. I took up the hobby again when my eldest daughter was born, baking a cake for her birthday. In terms of making cakes for sick children, I’d heard of a similar concept overseas and thought, ‘Why don’t I get a few people together and make cakes for sick children here?’ It’s taken off like wildfire from Auckland to Invercargill.

I started in 2012, juggling the voluntary work with my full-time job at St John. Today, Operation Sugar has more than 600 volunteer bakers, executive and pastry chefs and professional cake decorators from all around New Zealand.

We’ve managed to present hundreds of very sick Kiwi kids, many of them in hospital, with the cake of their dreams. We also have more than 300 volunteer photographers, so families can remember the day forever.

Some of the cakes we bake are magnificent and have included characters from Peppa Pig, Ben 10, Angelina Ballerina and The Wiggles, as well as a Ford Falcon, and a Spider-Man cake, complete with LED lights, that cost $1000 to make.

Rachel Jenkinson

Gateau superstar Rachel has combined her passions for cake decorating and charity. / Photos: Shelley Povey, Jennifer Johnston-Clark, Julie Willetts

The stories we receive are truly inspirational. Like the darling one-year-old girl in need of a liver transplant, who did not survive. One of our volunteers made her a beautiful dragon princess cake. It makes me happy to know that we could help make her one and only birthday all the more special. Her family has kept in touch and their strength is truly inspiring. There was also a woman who lost her son. She said her lasting memory was the joy on his face when he saw his cake.

Although this work takes a lot of my time, hearing these stories makes it all worthwhile. Families apply to have their dream cake made and I match the parents to the baker and photographer. I don’t get any funding but have been blessed by individuals and businesses showing their support with donations. I also couldn’t have done this without the hundreds of volunteers giving their time and creating cakes at their own expense.

It breaks my heart to see what some families have to endure.

It makes you want to hug your own children and appreciate them more.

Some people say the name Operation Sugar is not healthy, but it’s not about sugar. It’s about spreading sweetness and making a sick child’s day special.”

As told to Aroha Awarau.

About Aroha Awarau

I started my exciting magazine career at the NZ Woman’s Weekly seven years ago, and I’ve returned after two years away. I have a passion for telling Kiwi stories – the triumphs, the heartbreaks and the many inspirational tales.

more of this author
Issue 1541

Subscribe to the magazine

Simon Barnett’s 7 magic rules

In this week's issue of New Zealand Woman's Weekly magazine: Simon Barnett reveals his seven magic rules for raising girls.

New Zealand Woman's Weekly is the country's most-loved women's magazine, bringing a wide variety of news, stories, recipes and helpful hints to the home every week.

Subscribe now

Subscribe to our newsletters

Receive the latest celebrity news, recipes and beauty tips, delivered right to your inbox.