Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Childhood Cancer Month: Jessie Rees

One of my high school friends, Cliff Gibbons, went through a tough cancer battle a couple of years ago. He became more in tune with other people who were struggling, too, and realized that he couldn't even imagine going through it as a kid.

He posted a link on Facebook to a fan page for Jessie Rees, an 11-year-old who'd recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She and her dad kept up the page, frequently updating it to let people know what she was up to, how treatments were going, and asking for prayers. I became a fan of hers and followed her journey.

The amazing thing about it was that Jessie immediately wanted to do something positive. She saw that there was a floor full of kids at her hospital (Children's Hospital of Orange County) who didn't go home in between treatments the way she did. So she asked her parents, "How can we help them?"

They were too caught up in the fact that their own daughter was just starting cancer treatments to give much of an answer-- they were focused on her survival. But Jessie didn't wait for them to come up with an idea; she went home that day, sat in the kitchen, and began decorating lunch bags with get well messages and stickers. Then she began putting all her Beanie Babies in the bags.

This is the video that gave me goosebumps and made me fall in love with Jessie:



Her dad spoke to the nurses and found out that it was fine for them to bring in gifts for the other kids, but everything had to be brand new (to avoid spreading germs to kids with compromised immune systems). That was the day JoyJars were born.

Jessie, along with members of her swim team, church, school, and community, began assembling plastic jars full of fun little toys to give out to kids battling cancer, to spread her message: Never, Ever Give up (NEGU).

Jessie lived for 10 months after her diagnosis. It was heartbreaking to read that she had moved to heaven, and I expected the JoyJars movement to end with her. Months later, I was inspired by the way her father carried on her legacy. It's not just that he continued sending out the jars; it became bigger and bigger, expanding to include other types of help for families of kids with cancer, going international with the foundation, holding a beautiful gala every year... Now, nearly 100,000 kids have received JoyJars across the world.

I reached out to Erik to ask if he'd thought about writing a book about Jessie. I said I would love to help. My timing was perfect; he indeed did want to write a book, but felt it was just too close to home to be able to get perspective. We worked on it together, with an excellent editor (Sandra Vander Zicht). All of us were so proud of how it turned out.

Part of the book's proceeds go to the Jessie Rees Foundation, to fund more JoyJars and other services for kids going through cancer treatment.

The book was released yesterday-- appropriately, because September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Never Ever Give Up is now in bookstores and online, both in paperback and Kindle format. I have such high hopes that it'll become a bestseller and that the foundation will be able to help even more kids.

I hope you'll buy a copy for yourself or anyone else who could use a dose of inspiration today.

 Never Ever Give Up


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