When Jessie Joy Rees was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor at age 11, her first thought was not about herself, but on how she could bring joy and hope to other children suffering from cancer. In a society riddled with self-centered behavior, comes a story of how one young girl inspires a nation to help others in need through the overwhelming uncertainty and sufferings of treating cancer.
Told through the eyes of her father, Erik Rees, and releasing in conjunction with National Childhood Cancer Awareness month, Never Ever Give Up: The Inspiring Story of Jessie and her JoyJars chronicles the ten months Jessie selflessly and courageously battled cancer. It started with a simple question from Jessie: How can we help the other children with cancer? Her answer became an international movement called NEGU: Never Ever Give Up. She and her family worked in the ‘Joy Factory’ – filling packages with toys, games and love for other kids with cancer.
Jessie first handed them out personally at the hospital where she was being treated, but the effort blossomed quickly and there were soon thousands of JoyJars being distributed across the nation and to over fifteen countries. Today, more than 100,000 kids have received JoyJars all over the world, and they continue shipping each week to kids in over 260 children’s hospitals and 175 Ronald McDonald Houses.
Tragically, Jessie lost her battle with cancer in January of 2012, but her message lives on in the Jessie Rees Foundation, which has become a beacon of hope for families fighting pediatric cancer. On the day of Jessie’s Celebration of Life service, amazingly, more than 200 out of the 5,000 attendees stood up and committed their lives to Jesus that day.
“I had thought my daughter’s biggest impact on the world had to do with her JoyJars, but I started seeing something else that day,” said Rees. “More than two hundred people had just been given a home in heaven because of Jessie. That’s some legacy. What could be better than helping others have eternal life?”
Nearly a year after Jessie’s passing, she won a “Young Wonders” award from CNN, which was presented at the annual “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” awards ceremony in Los Angeles, hosted by Anderson Cooper. Ten “Heroes” and three “Young Wonders” awards were handed out, with presentations on a large screen to show the audience what each of the winners had done to earn their honors.
Never Ever Give Up is immensely personal. Why is it important to share your daughter’s story? I had three goals for sharing Jessie’s story; increase awareness of childhood cancer, give people facing personal hurdles in life hope and to create a wave of compassion through personal acts of kindness.
Where did Jessie come up with the idea of creating JoyJars? Why did she do this, instead of focusing on herself? Jessie came up with the idea after she started treatment and learned there were lots of children that couldn’t leave the hospital. She just had a burden for them and wanted to help them. The name actually came from taking her middle name “joy” and adding it to “jars”. She choose to spread joy because she knew life was about giving not getting.
How did making the JoyJars, not only help others, but also begin helping your family? JoyJars gave Jessie a sense of purpose during her fight with cancer. She loved filling each one and sending them out to kids. She really loved seeing pictures of kids holding her JoyJars on Facebook. Our entire family helped Jessie with JoyJars and today we still stuff “joy” as a family in her honor.
Tell us about the Facebook page Jessie created. How did social media help Jessie throughout battling cancer? We needed a way to keep people updated on Jessie’s condition so we were going to create a CaringBridge page but she didn’t want one so we suggested Facebook. She was okay with Facebook and started sharing her daily journey with people she had never met. Her Facebook fans become like family to her as they sent daily notes of encouragement and prayers. Jessie felt very alone and physically limited during her fight so her fans made her feel loved.
You did not fully share the extent of Jessie’s illness to your other two children. Do you think this was the right move? Why? Every parent has to make decisions that they feel are best for their children. Stacey and I felt it was best to hold on to the fact God could heal Jessie at anytime. In addition, we wanted everyone living with “hope”, which is a very powerful thing in life no matter what age. Was it the right move? After talking with Shaya and JT afterwards they were both thankful they didn’t live with this dark cloud over their lives each day. They did an amazing job loving their sister and being there for her. Looking back, we wouldn’t have changed a thing.
How did your kids handle their grief? What advice do you have for parents who are dealing with a tragedy? Grief is a powerful emotion that everyone processes differently. Some get quiet and some get loud. Our job as parents were to simply walk with them through their grief and let them know we were there for them no matter what. My only tip for parents is don’t hide your pain from your kids. Let them know you are hurting too and together with God’s help you will all heal.
Jessie had a strong faith in God. How did she draw strength from her relationship with God during her treatment? Jessie did have an amazing faith in God which inspires me daily. She would pray for herself, listen to worship music during treatments and do her nightly devotions with her mommy. She drew her strength from Phil. 4:13 and asked God daily for support.
Many of your friends and family members walked along side of you during this difficult process. How did this help? Jessie was blessed to be part of a great school, church and swim team which provided her and our family wonderful emotional, spiritual and practical support. After Jessie moved to Heaven, we didn’t have to cook a meal for four months.
Unfortunately, cancer strikes 1 in 300 children before the age of 20. What advice do you have for others who want to help a family with a child fighting cancer? In the book I list all sorts of simple ways to help families with children fighting cancer. Families need help but don’t want to have to add “managing” the help to their already chaotic lives. The best thing to do if you really know the person is show up and do something. Don’t ask, “how can I help you?” Just help.
Over 80,000 JoyJars have been distributed internationally. How have you accomplished so much in such a small time frame? We are actually nearing 100,000 JoyJars in all 50 states and 28 countries. We just received a request from Lima, Peru. Social media has been the best channel of communication for us. Jessie simply just started at Children’s Hospital of Orange County and it grew week by week. We now partner with over 275 children’s hospitals and 175 Ronald McDonald Houses.
How did your experiences with Jessie’s illness strengthen or challenge your faith? During Jessie’s fight it strengthened my faith as I depended on God to give me the wisdom, strength and peace to walk with Jessie and the family. I truly thought He would heal her physically. Unfortunately, God choose Heaven as a means of healing which challenged my trust in Him for months. Now, Heaven has never been more real to me and I can’t wait to spend time in eternity with Jessie and my Heavenly Father.
Do you have advice for other Christians who may be questioning God’s plan? I don’t know if I would call it “advice” but I would let them know they are not alone in their feelings. I questioned God many times and still do. I don’t question His love for me or Jessie. I questioned His choice in using Heaven as a healing agent. But now that time has past, I see His plan. Jessie was an Angel sent to Earth with a message (Never Ever Give Up) and a mission (childhood cancer). How else can you explain how one twelve year old girl, fighting cancer, choose to give to other kids and started a global movement of compassion that has raised millions of dollars to “care” for children/families fighting cancer around the world. My only answer is, God had a plan!
In addition, I would encourage them to realize God’s plans don’t always match up to our own plans but He is still a loving and caring God. Faith in God is all about “believing” in our hearts and heads that God loves us no matter what and when we fully depend on Him, He will show us the way.
Tell us more about the Jessie Rees Foundation. September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness month. How can we help? The Jessie Rees Foundation is a global childhood cancer charity dedicated to ensuring every child fighting cancer has the support and resources to Never Ever Give Up. We fulfill our mission by 1) encouraging courageous kids to NEGU, 2) assisting courageous families to NEGU, 3) rallying communities to NEGU for courageous kids, 4) mobilize athletes to NEGU for courageous kids and 5) inspire the world to NEGU for courageous kids.