George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address about a time in America’s future when we might be tempted to discard the pillars of civility: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.”
Let me give a great example of what Washington’s words look like in action.
In February 2011, 11-year-old Jessie Rees was a junior Olympic swimmer for the Mission Viejo Nadadores, and she started getting strange headaches.
One month later, the blond, blue-eyed Southern California girl was diagnosed with two malignant tumors in her brainstem. The cancer was inoperable.
Despite the fact that she had a 1 percent chance to live 18 months, Jessie and her parents still decided to endure 30 rounds of radiation therapy at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.
And then the unthinkable happened, at least for many of us adults.
One sunny spring day, when she was moved by the fact that she was able to leave the hospital as an outpatient, she asked her parents about the kids who were inpatients, “What can we do for them?”
Her dad, Erik, explained to Yahoo Sports just last week that it’s a question that “changed the tapestry” of his life. “She’s fighting a battle she can’t win,” Erik explained as he choked up, “and she just chose to help others.”
Jessie’s words began a movement that not only changed the Rees family forever but also affected tens of thousands of people all over the world.
She returned home that spring day and put tiny trinkets and toys from around the house into paper lunch bags. Her parents encouraged her that small jars probably would be a better option. And seeing as Jessie’s middle name was Joy, they called them JoyJars. And they were delivered weekly to sick kids in the hospital.
The popularity of JoyJars exploded. Tens of thousands friended her on Facebook. Word spread about Jessie, and Olympians and NFL players started going to children’s hospitals everywhere with JoyJars, which have become a symbol of strength and hope.
JoyJars increased as Jessie’s condition worsened. Yahoo Sports explained: “Her vision ebbed. Her headaches became more severe. Her legs, the same ones that propelled her through the water so quickly, could hardly hold her up. There were nights when Erik had to carry his daughter up the stairs to bed, holding back tears as he prayed the next day would be easier. It often wasn’t. Jessie told her dad she felt ‘lonely and limited.’ Her friends wouldn’t know what to say as her face bloated and she started having to wear a mask. ‘Her body,’ Erik says, ‘got stripped away.'”
All the while, Jessie had a motto that transformed into her foundation, “NEGU,” which stands for “Never Ever Give Up.” Her strength to endure came from her family and devotion to God. Her favorite Bible verses were: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) and “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
On Jan. 5, 2012, Jessie had endured her last night’s sleep with her severe headaches. With her equally courageous parents, Erik and Stacey, at her side, Jessie exited this life for her heavenly home. She was only 12 years old.
Five thousand people attended Jessie’s memorial at Saddleback Church, and nearly as many watched online, including Kaitlin Sandeno, a former Olympic swimmer. Sandeno was so inspired by Jessie’s life and legacy that she became a national spokeswoman for NEGU, which now has its own website.
There are presently 35 athletes working with NEGU, and Jessie’s parents hope to have 100 by the end of 2013 to help the more than 20,000 children who are fighting cancer right now in U.S. hospitals.
Yahoo Sports reported: “What began with a few paper bags and a few toys has now reached 11 countries. In 2012 alone, 47,000 kids received JoyJars.”
Jessie’s life and words are very reminiscent for me of the words of Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim who was shot at Columbine High School more than a decade ago. She said, “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same.”
My dear friends Darrell and Sandy Scott, who spearheaded Rachel’s Challenge in memory of their beautiful and kind daughter, Rachel, recently partnered with my wife, Gena, and me and our foundation, KickStart Kids, to further help American youths and families.
What is needed most is for us to return to a foundation of decency based upon an absolute or religious morality. It’s about becoming more like Jessie Joy Rees and Rachel Joy Scott.
We must return to being a nation in which mutual respect is king — in which I am my brother’s keeper and we agree to disagree with respect. It’s time to renew our commitment to the basic premises of humanity: Do unto others as you would have them do to you, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
As I do the Scott family, I commend the Rees family, including Jessie’s siblings, Shaya and J.T., for enduring and overcoming the immense personal obstacles associated with Jessie’s passing and for leaving a legacy for Jessie by supporting thousands of kids with cancer all over the world.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jessie and Rachel shared the same middle name, Joy. Their impact on the world will be everlasting.