Spreading Joy

Dec. 19, 2017

By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications

It was just a bouncy ball. Or so Zach Slaughter thought.

That is until the GW junior saw the boy's reaction.

The youngster howled with delight, his celebration over the dollar-store prize overwhelming the room at Inova Children’s Hospital in Falls Church, Va. Even if only for a moment, the simple gift offered a welcome ray of sunshine in what can be a scary place.

To Slaughter, that scene from his November visit illustrated what the Jessie Rees Foundation is all about. It’s why he pushed for the GW Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to partner with the pediatric cancer charity whose motto is Never Ever Give Up.

“It was so cool to see how excited he was,” said Slaughter, who plays on the men’s water polo team. “That’s why I want to set up more visits: I want more people to be able to see what the money’s going to and the impact that it has on these kids.”

GW SAAC has already raised more than $8,000 to help the Jessie Rees Foundation distribute Joy Jars – clear plastic containers filled with toys, games and trinkets – to children across the country battling cancer.

The group hopes to expand its support of the charity in the spring with more fundraisers and more chances for Colonials to personally deliver the jars. The goal is to collect $25,000 by the end of the school year.

This is the first time the Jessie Rees Foundation has worked with a collegiate athletic department rather than an individual team.

“We wanted to take that step forward and kind of set a precedent and show that we’ve bought into this cause and the benefits that it can bring,” said GW SAAC President Mark Osis, a senior on the baseball team. “So far, it’s been nothing but great, and I know we have even more plans next semester, so I’m looking forward to it.”

For Slaughter, the cause hits close to home. His mother is a teacher at the California elementary school that Jessie Joy Rees attended and volunteers at the foundation that continues the work Rees started.

Rees began assembling care packages for other hospitalized youngsters shortly after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2011 at 12 years old. She prepared 3,000 Joy Jars - with the cheery moniker inspired by her middle name - during her 10-month fight before she died on Jan. 5, 2012.

Today, the Jessie Rees Foundation has distributed nearly 200,000 jars at 275 hospitals across all 50 states and 33 different countries.

“I think having people be aware and know Jessie’s story can really change a lot of people’s lives,” Slaughter said. “It’s so amazing that a 12-year old girl, even though she was in the biggest fight, cared more about other people and trying to brighten their day.”

Last summer, Slaughter brought that pitch to the GW SAAC.

In his first official act as the group’s leader, Osis held a conference call with all 52 members before they returned to campus for the fall. Community service suggestions were on the agenda.

Immediately afterward, Slaughter gave Osis a call with his idea. Soon, everybody was on board.

“Zach’s so passionate about it and so invested in the work they do,” Osis said. “He really sold us on it.”

Slaughter started with an August trip to the Jessie Rees Foundation’s headquarters near his home in California.

He worked with the organization’s Cory Tomlinson to brainstorm how a department-wide partnership might work, including ways to raise money but also get involved with the children the charity helps.

Tomlinson had worked with individual teams from schools like Louisville, Washington and Northwestern on targeted campaigns, but GW’s ambitions required even more planning.

The goal is to find the best way for each program to offer its support, whether that’s collecting donations at games, organizing special fundraising events or something farther outside the box.

Every team has been set up with its own fundraising page. They’ve collected donations throughout the fall, mostly through social media crowdsourcing.

The proceeds from their fifth-annual dodgeball tournament earlier this month went to the foundation, too. The event featured 21 teams – up from 12 in 2016 – and raised $1,143.

So far, Tomlinson has been pleased with the model that’s taking shape for other schools to follow.

“I’m holding my heart right now because it means so much to us that these college students want to rally around what we do,” said Tomlinson, the foundation's sports engagement manager. “We treasure every dollar and every penny here. All of those donations just mean so much to us because that’s just more that we can reach toward giving another joy jar to a child fighting cancer.”

The spring offers more chance to turn ideas into action. The wheels are already in motion for a campus-wide cornhole tournament and countless smaller projects aimed at chasing the $25,000 goal.

Slaughter also hopes for more interaction with kids. He'd like to create a regular schedule for hospital visits like the one he, Rochelle Draper (softball) and Pierce Deamer (men’s water polo) made to Inova on Nov. 12.

The group was able to personally deliver about 20 Joy Jars and make some new friends along the way. They got a chance to see the excitement brought by the fidget spinners, crayons, playing cards and other toys inside.

One girl asked them to draw on the windows in her room and then whipped up a homemade thank-you note for them before they’d even left the hospital.

For Draper, the visit provided perspective amid a busy fall and more motivation to continue the push to brighten more days for children in need.

“I wish that everyone could see the smiles that something so simple puts on their faces,” Draper said. “It was priceless.”

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