Dressed in a matching purple short outfit with the word “Hope” on the back of her shirt, 3-year-old Megan Schulte gathered sea shells from a table in the corner of Surfside United Methodist Church.
The Newport News, Va., girl was moments away from her first beach vacation.
It was something her parents, Kelly and William Schulte, didn’t think was possible after the girl was diagnosed with leukemia as a 16-month-old. The bright-eyed girl with pig-tails bounced around the room earlier this week to the arms of church volunteers who gave the family an all-expense paid week vacation in Myrtle Beach.
“We couldn’t do this, financially we couldn’t do it. “We would have never thought of being able to take her to the beach” because her immune system was compromised, Kelly Schulte said Saturday after the family arrived in town. “It's unbelievable. This is fantastic. They are like angels,” she said of the church volunteers who work for Jason’s House, a mission to give free vacations to families with cancer-stricken children treated at 12 hospitals in North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina.
Twelve families are wrapping up their weeklong vacation this weekend thanks to the program, which began 28 years ago in memory of 6-year-old Jason Lewis, whose parents Jim and Linda Lewis were members of the church, said Elaine Paige, chairwoman of the program.
Families are selected by social workers at the hospitals, and local volunteers work with various businesses to get free accommodations, meals and entertainment for them during the week.
The program provides free trips to 60 families a year, Paige said.
“All the families are facing threats of losing their child to cancer. They can get away from hospitals and chemo and come and not have to worry about money,” Paige said. “For some, it’s their first vacation together since they’ve been sick, and, unfortunately, for some it’s their last vacation.”
Local oceanfront hotels, restaurants and entertainment complexes donate their services, and some have been involved since the program began in 1984, she said. Through monetary donations, the families also receive $300 cash to help with gas and tipping at restaurants.
“If it weren’t for our community we could not do what we do for our mission,” Paige said.
Billie McClain, a church member, was on the board when the program began, and on Aug. 19 she helped Megan Schulte gather a bag of seashells at the church.
“It has really grown. I think it’s wonderful how it’s grown,” McClain said. “It makes you feel good to come and do it.”
The children also pick out some toys and goodies when they arrive at the church while their parents learn about the vacation and receive vouchers.
“After we check them in the motel, we say it’s your week … have a great week … if we’re needed we’re here,” Paige said. “By word of mouth it has grown tremendously over the years. When they hear about it and a child has cancer they want to be on board.”
Children also get a ride around in a Corvette courtesy of volunteers with the Grand Strand Corvette Club, said Lee Ritchey, a church member who got involved with the program eight years ago. On Saturday, he gave children rides in his yellow Corvette.
“This is a ministry that we felt very strongly about,” Ritchey said of himself and his wife, who died of cancer in February 2011. “We do it because we want to try to give a little bit back.”
Tarboro, N.C., resident Maria Cabrera said she couldn’t find words to express her gratitude to volunteers for giving a vacation to her family: Isidro Cabrear, 10-year-old Isidro, 8-year-old Felipe; 5-year-old Jesus and 4-month-old Mariel.
“It’s great to let the kids experience something like this, especially for a family like us because we don’t have the money to do it,” Maria Cabrera said. “It’s great to see the excitement on their faces.”
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723.