RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, Calif. (Christian Examiner)—Erik Rees couldn't stop helping pediatric cancer patients find joy if he wanted to—which of course he doesn't.
"I'm addicted to seeing kids fighting cancer smile," Rees said, echoing the words of his former boss, Rick Warren, who likes to say he's addicted to changed lives.
Erik's five-year journey from a staff pastor at one of the United States' largest churches to leading a foundation designed to help children suffering from cancer began with the news no parent ever wants to get.
His soon-to-be 12-year-old girl, Jessie, had brain cancer
At the time, Rees served as Saddleback Church's pastor of ministry and was quickly becoming one of the evangelical world's most sought after voices in ministry leadership and ministry development. But the news in March of 2011 that his daughter had brain cancer forever changed the trajectory of his life.
For the next ten months and two days, Erik and Stacey Rees—along with their two other children—helped Jessie through the fight of her young life.
They quickly got Jessie involved in a clinical trial that consisted of 30 rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Because her therapy was outpatient in nature, they took her each week to the Children's Hospital of Orange County [CHOC].
As the family left CHOC following Jessie's third week of treatment, Jessie asked her parents when the other kids get to come home.
"We had to educate her that there are kids fighting cancer that have different diagnoses than hers and some of them stay days, some stay weeks, some stay months and, unfortunately, some of the Leukemia kids can stay over a year," Erik said.
Jessie's question from the backseat of their car has changed the life of the whole family.
"How can we help?" Jessie asked.
Still reeling from the revelation of their daughter's cancer, the couple said little at first. When the family arrived at home, Jessie had gotten out some of her paper lunch bags and started decorating them with stickers and writing encouraging phrases on them such as, "Get Well" and "Believe."
When Erik asked Jessie what she was doing, she told him she wanted to put her Beanie Babies into the bags and deliver them to patients at CHOC. That weekend JoyJars© were born. Jessie's middle name was Joy, and the jars provided a sturdier container than the paper bags. Brightly colored and stuffed with little toys, Jessie's jars weren't designed to cure cancer—but to cure cancer's most devastating ailment, hopelessness.
The family went to the Internet to buy the toys and put together the jars in their garage, which they dubbed as "The Joy Factory."
"To be honest, whatever she wanted to do, I was going to make it happen because I knew there was a clock ticking," Rees said. "If she wanted to take toys to other kids, I was going to find a way to do it, like any parent would."
When one of her friends urged her to "Never ever give up," Jessie had a slogan that would not only characterize her battle against cancer, it was a phrase she'd pass on to countless other kids as she passed out the JoyJars.
Over the next few months, Jessie and her friends made and distributed 3,000 JoyJars. In the book Never Ever Give Up that Erik wrote chronicling Jessie's story, he admitted that the JoyJars effort was first a way to take Jessie's mind off of cancer and give her something positive to focus upon, but he soon realized that the whole family benefited from the effort.
"They gave us something tangible to do beyond just dwelling on blood scans and medications and scary side effects all day," Erik wrote.
On Jan. 5, 2012 Jessie "moved to Heaven" as Erik says. More than 9,000 people attended Jessie's Celebration of Life service at Saddleback Church.
After putting so much energy toward helping Jessie the previous 10 months, Erik and Stacey gathered the other two children—J.T. and Shayla—at the kitchen table for a discussion about what was next. Erik and Stacey asked the children whether they wanted to continue Jessie's efforts or should they "put a bow" on this season of their lives.
"Jessie's motto was never, ever give up. How can we?" asked Shayla.
With that, the family committed themselves to Jessie's dream of helping every child with cancer.
"It was a very poignant conversation, where we all, as a family, decided to keep going, in honor of Jessie but also helping all those children we knew who could use our support," Erik said.
Nearly five years after Jessie's diagnosis and four years after her passing, the Jessie Rees Foundation has relationships with more than 250 children's hospitals around the world. They've sent out more than 123,000 JoyJars—to kids in every U.S. state and 30 countries.
When children receive a JoyJar, their families have the opportunity to sign up for the foundation to have an ongoing support relationship with them. If the family agrees, the foundation will reach out to the entire family—from the courageous child with cancer, to the parents, to the siblings—every eight weeks with "regular doses of hope, joy and love." Those doses can be anything from a postcard, to a JoyJar, to boxes of toys for siblings, to a family fun pack.
"We're trying to let the entire family know that they're not alone and that we care about them—and that we're cheering for them to never, ever give up," Erik said.
For more information about how to get involved in the Jessie Rees Foundation, visit www.negu.org.
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