“Never Ever Give Up”: The Jessie Rees Story

“Never Ever Give Up”

How would you react to the news you have an inoperable brain tumor? Let me pose the question again. What if you were eleven years old and were told you had an inoperable brain tumor? How would you cope with such devastating news?

Jessica Joy Rees received this heartbreaking diagnosis in March of 2011. I met Jessie’s “daddy”, Erik Rees, through my service in the Memorial Ministry at Saddleback Church where he is a pastor. I listened to Pastor Rees speak and comfort families during the most difficult times of their lives. Never did I imagine such a reversal of roles.

Photo courtesy of www.jessicajoyrees.com

News of Jessie’s condition took a long time to adversely affect me. Our church has prayed through cancer and brain tumors before. This would be another opportunity to praise God’s healing or so I thought. I followed Jessie’s journal on Facebook. I thanked God on the days she reported the MRI’s had shown some improvement. My heart ached for her and her family when her reports did not sound encouraging. Even when Jessie was having bad days her bright spirit leaped off the pages of her journal. Jessie lost her battle with this dreadful disease on January 5, 2012.

Jessie did not let what was going on inside of her body affect her outlook on life. She proved that she was given the middle name of Joy for a reason. Even while she was being poked and prodded she was thinking of others. Her main concern was finding a way to spread hope, joy and love to other children battling pediatric cancer.

And so, Joy Jars were born. Jessie wanted to fill jars with toys and activities that would bring children battling cancer joy. While she was well enough to do so, Jessie stuffed and delivered Joy Jars to children in the hospital.

Photo courtesy of joyjars.negu.org

Jessie’s innocent gesture has grown into the Jessie Rees Foundation – Team NEGU. NEGU is Jessie’s motto of “Never Ever Give Up”. Due to the generous support of sponsors such as Build-A-Bear, Chick-fil-A, UPS, Marriott and Veggie Tales, Joy Jars have reached 115 Children’s hospitals and 175 Ronald McDonald Houses.

Although I never met Jessie personally, I can’t help but feel that I knew her through her journal. Her “daddy” Erik has continued this journal.  Jessie’s family  invited us into their lives to pray for their daughter and now allow us to grieve the loss of Jessie along with them.

Jessie continues to inspire me on a daily basis. I was fortunate to be in attendance for her Celebration of Life Service. The Worship Center of Saddleback Church was filled to capacity and there was overflow into multiple other venues.

I consider Jessie to be an inspiration for the following reasons;

Her trust in God – This is a time when even the strongest of faiths may be tested. She loved God and trusted him with her illness. I find this amazing for an eleven-year old child.

Her concern for others – I can’t think of a better time for a child to be justified in being selfish. This was not the way God made Jessie. She wanted other children to experience hope, love and joy.

Her continuing legacy – The Jessie Rees Foundation continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Jessie’s dream was for every child battling cancer to have a Joy Jar. Through continuing sponsorships and donations her dream is rapidly coming to fruition.

Jessie’s much too short life was not in vain. God had a plan for her. Without her, children around our nation would not be receiving a dose of joy in the hospital.  I believe this helps them to feel less alone during a scary time.

_________________

How has cancer affected your life?

Have you known someone like Jessie who focused on others during their health battle?

 

If you would like to Donate to the NEGU Foundation click here.

Lori

About Lori

I was born in Long Beach, raised in Cypress and ventured to South Orange County in 1999. I'm a member of Saddleback Church and through volunteering in the Memorial Ministry I was introduced to Neil O'Connor. Neil decided to bring me on board even despite my endless badgering at our first meeting. I am the Director of Care Coordination and also fill the roles of Memorial Marker Design Specialist, Weekend Receptionist and Blog Team Member. Never did I expect a mortuary would be the place I would find my dream job. I feel extremely blessed by the relationships I have formed at O'Connor with the team and the families we are privileged to serve. I now live in Aliso Viejo with my beloved pups Max and Bella. Free time, though often hard to come by, is mostly spent with friends. The Bible verse I live by - I can do everything through him who gives me strength Philippians 4:13
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  • Karilyn Leslie

    Lovely tribute to a brave and beautiful young girl. Being a mom, I can’t imagine having to face a time such as this. What an amazing gift she was to her family and the world around her. Never let anyone or anything steal your JOY!!

    Lucy

  • Lori Bristol

    Hey Lady! 🙂
    If you ever have the opportunity, go to the Saddleback Church archives and watch her Celebration of Life service. It is one of the most moving tributes you will ever see.
    Not having children of my own, I have become very attached to the children of family and friends. I could not imagine this difficult time the Rees family is walking through. I am thankful that their faith remains strong.
    Yes, we all need to keep our joy and let is shine for others to see.

    Love,
    Ethel

  • Anne Collins

    Lorie,
    What a wonderful, inspirational post. Most of us didn’t know any of this until we heard about it at the time of her passing.
    I realize, being in a minister’s family doesn’t save us from the pains of life, but gives greater opportunity to reach so many, even through tragedy. Jessica is the hero in their house even though she said goodbye and sounds like out of suffering will come great joy and victories in the name of Jesus. Thank you for helping us remember and for continuing to spread the word of her ongoing work.
    Love you
    Annie

    • Lori Bristol

      Annie,

      As I mentioned above, you should watch her Celebration of Life Service. I know the word is often overused, but in this case applies, “Amazing”. She was an amazing little girl.
      Her family is working so hard. They have found something to put their energy into that continues to honor their daughter, sister, niece, granddaughter, friend…..
      I suggest that you “Like” the Jessie Rees Foundation-Never Ever Give Up on Facebook. You will see the faces of the children who are receiving Joy Jars. They will melt your heart.
      Love you,
      Lori

  • Lori,
    I hate cancer. It has scarred my dad physically and emotionally and it took my grandpa from me 5 years ago. It has been an ever present monster in our family, either lurking in the background or staring at us in the face.

    I cannot image being a young girl, a young set of parents and watching cancer overcome her. But what Hope & what Joy! I would never associate those words with my experiences of cancer and certainly Jessie’s family have others to add, but WOW. I love this post, her spirit comes through & her story is so worthy of being told.

    Thank you for telling a different kind of cancer story – it’s such a good reminder of how life touches us all differently and how even our small lives can touch so many others.

    • Lori Bristol

      Sweet Molly,

      It breaks my heart that you had to learn about this ugly disease at such an early age.
      Praise God your Dad lived through his battle, but I am so sorry you had to lose your grandpa to it. I didn’t even think about it when writing Jessie’s story what a big part of your life has been defined by cancer.

      The fact that The Rees family would put their grief aside to carry on Jessie’s dream makes them inspirations to me as well. What complete devotion to put her wishes ahead of their feelings.

      It was my pleasure to share her story. Thank you to Pastor Erik Rees for giving me permission to write and publish this post.

      You touch my life just by knowing you. You are a gift to me as an editor and a friend.

  • Ashley Smith

    Thank you for sharing this story Neil. I am praying for peace and joy to this family, but it sounds lke their faith in the Lord is an outstanding testimony of “The Peace that goes beyond understanding”. That peace is something that everyone needs. We face days ahead of great uncertainty ahead and I know and trust our Lord takes the good ones home to be with him all the time. Each of us has a 100% fatal disease and we are all terminal. The day the our the year we do not know, but our gracious God knows just when our chosen time will be. This family has show that trust in their testimony, knowing and understanding and demonstrating that to all of us still here on this journey is what keeps us turning to God every step of the way. Blessings Neil and praying for peace for the Rees Family when our hearts are broken again and we MUST TURN OUR HEARTS TO HIM, who is able to do all things and work every little piece of our fractured lives to His ultimate Glory. God Bless you and your family

    • Hi Ashely –

      Thank you for your reply. You are so kind to share your prayers, thoughts and life with us. You have a great understanding of God’s love for us. There are so many questions that we will never truly understand in this life. Life is and always will be a mystery to us, we can only place our trust in God and ask for peace in our lives. Your support & love is awesome, even though you are on the other side of the world I feel like you are here with us. May God continue to bless you and your family. Take care my brother. XOXO

    • Lori Bristol

      Ashley,

      Thank you for reading and for your prayers for The Rees family. I am certain they are grateful to people like you who keep them in your heart.

      Blessings to you,
      Lori

  • Jeff Turner

    Lori,

    Thanks for sharing this story. It stirs up so many things for me. I think her ability to remain focused outside her own circumstances is the most amazing part. In the midst of such trial, there are many other things that we may tend to move to instead. Many of us would choose inward things that lead to depression, isolation fear and despair. Her tendency to look outward in the midst of this disaster is something I don’t do even in the best circumstances. What a testament to her God, faith and family.

    Others might look at this and say, “See, prayer doesn’t work. God isn’t listening.” In my own journeys I see death as God’s ultimate healing. That may sound like an excuse giving God a pass but I believe we have no idea what God intended for us and just how much He desires our best beyond our ability to understand. Our worldview can be so limited. On my better days I choose a view that inspired this lyric in one of my favorite songs about heaven.

    “There’s a land so far away

    Where ageless children play

    And everything is real
In this land of make believe…”

    And so I hope and have faith. Faith being the confidence of things we hope for will actually happen. It is the assurance of things we cannot see.

    Thank you for sharing this story Lori. It’s a tough one.

    Jeff

  • Lori Bristol

    Jeff,

    Thank you for your candid comments.

    Cancer is a tough word period and affects everyone for various reasons. Whether you have battled it yourself or watched someone close to you lose their battle, the “C” word leaves scars in it’s path.

    I think of Jessie every day. I never even met her and that is the impact she had on me. I have NEGU photo letters that Kasey made hanging in my bedroom.
    I needed to tell this story because it has been on my heart for months.

    Thank you for reading,
    Lori

  • Mark

    Lori….Thanks for the reminder that no matter how difficult life gets……never, ever give up….Mark

    • Lori Bristol

      Mark,

      I’m always reminding you about something. At least this one is useful!

      Thanks,

      Lori

  • Sharon Watkins

    Great article Lori. Cancer is not something I have personally experienced yet and pray that I never do, but this was an amazing story of unselfishness, love, concern and joy in the midst of trial. A great reminder and example to all of us. Thank you for sharing….Sharon

    • Lori Bristol

      Thank you so much Sharon.
      I have watched friends go through cancer treatments and surgeries. Very fortunately they are all doing well.
      I am glad you also noticed that Jessie is a great role model to all of us.
      Glad you are enjoying the blog.

      Thanks again,
      Lori

  • Connie

    Good job you did in writting such a Beautiful story. It is so hard to believe such courage and love for people that this young little Angel had. It is just sad more people young and old could not be like Jessie.

    • Lori Bristol

      You have her heart Mom. You would think of a selfless act just like she did. 🙂
      Love you!!!

  • Melody Hiller

    After knowing you for 25 yrs I’m not surprised you have chosen this field of work for your career. You are so compassionate and caring and I know you are exactly where you have needed to be your entire life. My cousin Rob passed away when he was 21 yrs old from Lupus and it was so hard on his parents as he was an only child and they adopted him at birth. They raised him in a Christian home and when he passed he told us he knew exactly where he was going and to not be sad because he was going to be back in the arms of Jesus. The peace of knowing where we are going when we die is priceless and Jessie at a young age knew that. God knows the reason for everything and our job is to witness to as many people as we can so they too will know the Peace Jessie and Rob had when they were called back into the arms of God.

    • Lori Bristol

      Melody,

      Thank you for your very sweet words. I didn’t choose this field, He chose it for me. You have been there through the hard times and I am so thankful you are still in my life to celebrate all of the good times.

      Although we hate having to say “Goodbye”, especially to children and young adults, our faith makes it easier. We know it is not permanent. We have comfort in knowing we will see each other again in a much better place.

      Love you my friend!!
      Lori

  • Hi Lori –

    Wow, what an incredible young lady Jessie is, I am so moved by her. This is my biggest fear, my child dying at an early age. I can barely respond to your post, my emotions are flying around. All I can to is pray for the Reece family and ask God to give them Hope and Comfort.

    Neil

    • Lori Bristol

      Neil,

      Jesse is such a precious boy and I am sure you worry about him every minute!
      I know I even watch Malia nap when I have her out of fear she could fall off of the bed.

      Being emotional about this post shows what a big heart you have. It was important to me to tell Jessie’s story. I want her dream to come true. I want all children battling cancer to have their own Joy Jar. I am hoping this post will hope generate more donations.

      Lori

  • Lori,

    Thank you for this powerful post about Jesse, her family and the incredible courage she had and shared with us all. What an incredible legacy to leave this world by bringing JOY to others in suffering, wow! It just goes to show you that you do not have to live a long life to have a long impact on others. It is not the years in the life, it is the life in the years that matter. I will keep this incredible family in my thoughts and prayers!

    • Lori Bristol

      Chuck,

      Thank you for your comment.
      I think of Jessie every day. If her personality was that infectious on the pages of her journal, I can only imagine what a magical child she was to be around.
      The Reese Family has amazing strength, faith and friends. I know they will appreciate your thoughts and prayers as well.

      Lori

  • Amy

    Just to think that someone at such a young age could be such an inspiration to us all. Her courage, bravery and love for God is what kept her strong. How blessed her family was to have her for the short time they did. How lucky are the people who’s lives she touched and continues to touch. What a legacy she has left behind for those who are fighting just like her. Her parents must be so proud. Even when you think you can’t Never Ever Give Up!

  • Lori Bristol

    Amy,

    I am certain this is a time where my first inclination would be to roll up in a ball and say, “Why Me?” The fact that Jessie always had a smile on her face and trusted God with whatever the outcome is amazing to me. It tells me she had faith that I need to keep working to obtain to be that comfortable with whatever he had planned for her.
    I honestly do not think I will ever forget her.

    Lori

  • Shayna Mallik

    Lori…….
    Wow what an amazing post! You have truly let Jessica’s strength shine thru. She was and still is an amazing inspiration to everyone. Her family was lucky to have such an amazing young child for the time they did and she will be missed everyday by anyone who knew of her story and struggle. Yet she stayed wanting to help other children and stayed the joyful little girl all grew to love.

    I don’t know if you knew this but about 8 years ago cancer took the life of my uncle, my mom oldest brother. To be more specific brain cancer. My uncle as well stayed positive thru his journey of cancer until God allowed him to not have the pain anymore.

    I know now my uncle is watching my family from above and will be missed and is loved and remembered everyday. I believe the same for Jessica, her spirit and joy is with everyone she touched and she is watching her family from above.

    Love you
    Shayna

    • Lori Bristol

      Shayna,

      I am glad you were able to sense what an inspiration I believe Jessica was and is.

      Thank you for sharing the story of your uncle. I am sorry your family had to experience loss due to cancer.
      I hope we live to see the day when a cure is found.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and share.

      Love you!
      Lori

  • Joe

    Lori
    Thank You for sharing that no matter how difficult we feel life is there is a very inspirational person to help us all through their story, while my own father is battling cancer it is uplifting to know we should all never give up on life and living.

    • Lori Bristol

      Joe,

      Thank you for sharing about your father. This is yet another example how many of us have been touched by this terrible disease.
      I find it so inspirational that a child would think of others during this time.
      Thank you for reading and I will keep your Dad in my prayers.

      Lori

  • Christopher Iverson

    Lori,

    This is the first blog I had to emotionally digest. The loss of a child always stirs my heart in a deep and profound way. As a father of two you women, both adults, I have a constant companion with me. That companion is the powerless possibility of losing one of my daughters to anything. This feeling and possibility is part of the choice made becoming a parent. But I know that Jessica’s parents understand the blessing of their perfect, beautiful gift of a daughter. I pray that they love her always and thank god not for the quantity of time but for the quality of life that their daughter gave to them through their love. Thank you. Peace Always! Chris

    • Lori Bristol

      Chris,

      Believe me, it was emotional for me to write.
      I know how powerful the love I feel as an “auntie” is. I can’t even imagine how much that is muliplied when the child and their welfare is your own.

      The Rees family exemplifies strength and compassion for others while they are going through their darkest days. They have trusted God with His decision and put the needs of others before themselves.
      I am so inspired by all of them.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      Lori

  • Fitz

    Lori,
    Thanks for sharing your story and being bold. It’s a great reminder to “stop and smell the roses” because life can be brutally short. As we can see from the comments, everyone has someone in their life that has impacted by cancer. They can’t throw enough money at that disease in my opinion to try to find a cure.
    Fitz

  • Lori Bristol

    Fitz,

    Thank you so much your comments.
    Where I live in Ladera there are many beautiful roses. I will show my age here, but when I am walking the dogs and see them I think of that old Mac Davis song, “You’ve Got To Stop and Smell The Roses”. Many of them are very fragrant so I make it a point to stop.

    I also agree we cannot put enough money into findng a cure. We hear mostly of the noteworthy people in the news who die from this terrible disease, but for all of them there are thousands upon thousands who are not published.

    So how many Joy Jars are you in for? 🙂

    Thank you again for reading and responding.
    Now I can say four out of four chiefs……..

    Lori