NEGU Blog

Kids Helping Kids: showing compassion through chaos

June 17, 2020

Written by Shaya Rees

I am a Melinda Heights Mountain Lion. I don’t think many people hold close to their elementary school alumni status – or at least we do not typically think about it. But, when you get the opportunity to continue seeing the direct impact a group of students from Melinda Heights Elementary School can make year after year, I cannot help but beam with pride knowing I went there too.


I graduated from Melinda Heights in 2009, two years before Jessie was diagnosed with cancer. When Jess was diagnosed during her 6th-grade year, Melinda rallied around our family. I did not completely recognize the impact of our Melinda Heights community during that tumultuous time in our lives, but looking back, they continue to stand by our side and support everything Jessie started whole-heartedly and without question. The teachers and faculty continue to say “yes”, ready to help however they can because they see the impact it not only has for us as a foundation but on their students.


For the last eight years, Melinda Heights has held an annual “JoyDrive” – a toy drive where students come together to learn about Jessie’s NEGU motto, what JoyJars are, and have the opportunity to donate toys we can put directly into JoyJars which will, in turn, put a smile on another child’s face. They live out what Jessie modeled: Kids helping Kids. The idea may seem small, buying toys for someone else, but being a part of it this year taught me so much. Compassion is contagious, even amidst chaos.


As a nation, we are facing a pandemic due to COVID-19. We’re being forced to quarantine inside, physically distant from friends, family, peers, co-workers, and our communities. Students have to finish their school year online, with even kindergarteners taking Zoom calls to receive instruction from their teachers. The world can feel chaotic, with all the stress this has placed on everyone and it would be completely normal for a school like Melinda Heights to pause the JoyDrive for this year. Instead, they decided that their students needed this more than ever. They didn’t want their students to lose another event they look forward throughout the school year, so together we hosted the first-ever “Virtual JoyDrive”. I had the incredible opportunity to create a fun video for the students to learn about Jessie, NEGU, and stir up excitement even though we couldn’t gather in an assembly together. The students were able to shop online, using a virtual JoyDrive registry, and had the toys shipped to their homes. We then held a JoyDrive drive-thru where students could bring their toys to our JoyFactory in Irvine, drop the toys off without leaving their cars, receive a fun goodie bag of encouragement, and see their teachers cheering them on. I loved watching the dreaming and out of the box thinking our team did alongside Melinda Heights teacher Kim Yarrington


The virtual JoyDrive was a challenge – and we learned a ton, which you can read about here. We were able to encourage families as they drove up to cheering teachers and Jessie Rees Foundation staff waving pompoms and hitting thunder sticks. Watching these kids smile ear to ear as they dropped their toys off through the car window was exactly what we were hoping for. They understood that they were making a difference and are a part of a team.


The toys they brought are helping us more than ever, especially since we cannot have volunteers in the JoyFactory, and have had to cancel some of our major fundraisers for the year. While everyone is trying to work through and understand the varying guidelines that continue to come out in regard to COVID-19 “dos and don’ts”, hospitals across the united states are emailing us asking for more JoyJars than ever. Hospitals had to stop all the fun volunteer programs they rely on – like music therapies, clowns, superheroes, athlete visits, playroom crafts, etc. – to protect the health and safety of their courageous kids. JoyJars help the nurses and child life specialists feel like they can still provide something fun for each patient, giving them something new to do, games to play, toys to build, and smiles that last for days.


Jessie’s compassionate heart is continuing to care for and love on kids across the United States when it feels like we can no longer care for, encourage, and be there for one another in the ways we need and want to. The kids at Melinda Heights are continuing to be inspired by Jessie every year, learning how even the ripple effect in their small act of buying a toy for another kid their age can create waves of hope, joy, and love in every single state.


I cherish the place I have as Jessie’s big sister. I have forever been changed from watching Jess care for others she didn’t even know in the midst of her chaos. Sometimes exactly what our hearts need amidst chaos is a change in perspective. Those kids at Melinda Heights were able to see just that. They looked beyond their own changing circumstance, to see the need of other kids their age who are going through something bigger. They got to play a direct role in encouraging someone else. I hope the simple lesson of looking out for and encouraging those around sticks with them for the rest of their life and they teach their own kids one day the value of helping others.

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