“It’s not other people who are responsible for making our world a better place; it’s us.” –Erik Rees
When planning for a beach vacation or preparing for a long flight there are many great reads out there to choose from. I tend to lean towards witty, comical books or choose biographies to sort of escape reality on these trips. However, the book I just finished reading last week, “Never Ever Give Up, the Inspiring Story of Jessie and Her JoyJars”, by Erik Rees, was one that sort of fell in my lap by chance.
I had the pleasure of meeting Erik Rees, Jessie’s Dad, last month at the headquarters of the Jessie Rees Foundation. For a couple of years now I had heard of this tenacious girl and her family who created something beautiful in the face of tragedy and felt so humbled that Erik allowed me to come and take an hour of his time to discuss the foundation and the Infinite Smile Project. Erik was incredibly kind with his time giving me a full tour of the their facility, the Joy Factory where they stuff JoyJars for children fighting cancer, discussing how he built the foundation, sharing contacts with me and providing invaluable advice. He also gave me a copy of Jessie’s book before it was released to read if I wished to hear more about their story. I am so glad he did.
There are some books you read that for one reason or another have a profound impact and stay with you forever. My favorite has always been “Tuesday’s With Morrie” in this category. Now, I have “Never Ever Give Up” to add to that bracket. Jessie’s father, Erik, opens his heart and his family’s lives to the world to tell the story of their amazing and beautiful daughter, Jessie, but also to tell a story of courage, compassion, and what true acts of love and kindness can provide people in a time of distress and sadness.
Jessie was diagnosed with inoperable brain tumor on March 3, 2011 at age 11. Jessie’s father, a pastor at the world renowned Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, walks us through his feelings as parent and protector learning this news for the first time, how he was supposed to tell her beautiful daughter that she might die, and how he had to motivate himself daily to remain a rock to his young child while his world was falling apart. The list just went on and on.
How to have adult conversations delicately with his daughter. How to communicate with her older sister and younger brother with calm and strength. How to fight to keep a normalcy in their home so their three children wouldn’t see the sadness and fear in their parents and feed off of it. How to talk to her friends that didn’t know how to act other than to back away slightly because they didn’t know what to feel or how to deal with cancer at such a young age. And ultimately how as a pastor, keep his faith in God when he couldn’t understand why after counseling so many other families in traumatic situations why he suddenly was the one that might lose his greatest joy – Jessie.
“How can we help them?” ~Jessie
Jessie was the kind of child we champion at the Infinite Smile. In the face of adversity, instead of sinking in self-pity she was concerned with others. While leaving her simulation appointment on March 11, 2011, Erik and wife, Stacey, tried to alleviate her fears by discussing the other children like her who she saw in the hospital. When she realized they were sick and some may not return home, she simply asked her parents, “How can we help them?” After much discussion Jessie decided she wanted to bring toys in clear plastic containers (similar to large pretzel barrels) to children staying at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, and call them JoyJars®. Shortly after that, her older sister’s friend posted a basic phrase that said so much, “Never Ever Give Up”. This soon became Jessie’s mantra and the term NEGU® was born.
“What have I done to make the world a better place today?”
This determined girl suddenly was inspiring so many. As she walked the halls at CHOC you could hear kids whisper, “There’s Jessie!”, the term “NEGU” was spreading like wildfire, adults were getting NEGU tattoos, and she had fans and supporters now all over the world championing her cause. A simple project that was geared to take her mind off of treatments and bring a smile to her face while helping others, now turned into a jar making factory in their garage and requests were popping up all over the globe. Her courage and charitable spirit was even winning her awards from CNN and a British award generally reserved for their citizens – the Diana Award. A humble girl, Jessie couldn’t believe all the good the JoyJars® were getting. Others saw it differently though. They realized she had ignited a passion in others that many search for their entire lives and never find. A child inspiring kids and adults all over the world – it was a beautiful thing.
Being a parent of young kids and meeting Erik and his wife personally, it was a difficult book to read at times. For about a week I was that person at the gym crying while reading their journey. However, there are many reasons why I loved this book and wanted to blog about it. Whether you have kids or not or known anyone who has passed of cancer or not – this book has tremendous lessons that one family learned from 11 months with one incredible girl. I hope that you will read them and pause to appreciate the magnitude of what this young lady contributed to this world and what her family learned from their experience.
- She taught us how to listen to our hearts and take action. If something is wrong in the world and it hurts your heart, you have the power to do something to make a difference. Jessie taught others that at any age you can empower yourself to make changes to make life better for ourselves and others
- The Rees’ learned how a community can come together in ways never imaginable. From their church donating air miles to give them one last family vacation to Hawaii, to a friends’ connections sending a limo to take their family to a taping and backstage passes to the American Idol set – we learn that these acts of kindness not only gave Jessie some amazing experiences but these acts of kindness gave Erik and Stacey a lifetime of gratitude for these gifts.
- That a life of service and giving back provides just as much to the recipients as the donor. The JoyJars® were invented by Jessie to help others but it was really those kids that helped her. Seeing their excitement and getting their letters brought so much joy to Jessie and her family. These plastic jars of love provided a kind of medicine no hospital could – not just to Jessie but her entire family.
- Anyone can be inspired to do better with the proper leader. An 11 year old girls’ creation touched all ages, races and demographics – no one is immune. It’s a choice and a life-changing one at that to extend kindness to others.
- One can always use their talents for good. It doesn’t take money, a certain degree, or a specific age to make a difference. If you have a talent and passion for the higher good, you can contribute in some way. It just takes some creativity to discover where your talents are best served for others.
- It’s not “other people” who are responsible for changing our world and making it a better place. It can be changed by us and must be changed by us. As Erik said, “We get to take care of each other. Jessie figured that out early in life”. Small changes produce so much value.
- Material things, petty arguments, or daily complaints – none of them matter in the end. It all comes down to love. How to share it, show it and extend if to others.
Jessie passed 11 months after her diagnosis on January 5, 2012. On January 11th the Rees’ left their home to attend Jessie’s Celebration of Life service to the most beautiful view. Trees stretching 2 miles along the path from the Rees’ home to the church were donned with NEGU colored ribbons, balloons and posters of love for Jessie and her family. I actually remember seeing posts and photos of this on Facebook prior to meeting Erik and Stacey. I thought what an amazing gesture it was for her family then and after meeting her family and reading their story all that comes to mind is the power of love mixed with kindness. What some volunteers, neighbors and friends did for them that morning is something they will always remember that touched and changed them forever.
This month is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Many people are changing their social media photos to the one above to raise awareness to charities such as NEGU. If you are interested in learning more, donating to NEGU, purchasing the book, or stuffing JoyJars® of your own, you can find more information at The Jessie Rees Foundation.
So, the final question is: DO YOU NEGU?