Church brings in families for a free week of vacation

The first families for Jason’s House arrived Saturday at Surfside United Methodist Church – intermingled among the traffic that was slowly bound for the beach.

Not a brick-and-mortar building but a mission built on a legacy of love, Jason’s House was created to give cancer-stricken children and their families a worry-free week away from hospitals, treatment centers and the daily heartache, stress and uncertainty of being terminally ill.

Jim Lewis lives in Panama City, Fla., with his wife Linda said his son Jason, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 6.

It wasn’t long after the diagnosis that Jim Lewis decided to take money he’d saved (equaling about a year’s salary) and travel to go see family and places and have fun, including getting tickets to see the Washington Redskins play in Atlanta (Jason’s favorite team) and a trip to Disney World.

But, after just 22 months, their son Jason passed away at age 8.

A short time later, Lewis received word he was being sent to Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. Thinking how much their son would’ve enjoyed Myrtle Beach, the Lewises decided to create something that would make it possible for other families to enjoy what their son could not.

What started with 10 families has turned into something bigger than anyone imagined.

A total of 60 families with up to six family members are given a free week’s vacation throughout June, July and August with all accommodations donated by members of the Grand Strand community.

Families chosen through combined efforts of 12 hospitals and their social work departments in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia get to enjoy more than 40 entertainment venues including water parks, mini-golf and theater shows.

“We tell them to go to all of the shows – as many as you can. If you don’t like them, you don’t have to stay,” said volunteer Doris Artz.

In addition, Grand Stand Medical Center is equipped to handle any emergencies to give the families even more peace of mind.

The vacations are a “huge blessing,” said Denise Reese, whose family was one of the first five families to arrive Saturday. “You fight a beast for so long ... it’s draining,” Reese said.

Reese is here with husband David, daughters Ashland and Ella, ages 6 and 9, respectively, and son Tanner from Thomson, Ga.

Tanner, who will turn 14 on July 24, is visiting Myrtle Beach for the first time. He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2011 and is set to receive his last treatment in December. Once Artz finished her “processing duties” that included briefing the family on what to expect, presenting them with $300 in cash, meal vouchers, a beach bag stuffed with toys and goodies, and accommodation information, Reese recalled the first time they had to pack and go to the hospital.

“I was checking through Tanner’s bag and found his Bible and I thought ‘wow,’ I really have done something right.”

“We have a lot of faith,” she said.

After many months of planning to get ready for the families to arrive, Artz, chairwoman Elaine Paige, Diane Sowers and others all agreed in unison that “today was the easiest day.”

It’s a day that wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers.

“This is an all-volunteer mission and no one is paid,” said Paige.

Dedicated volunteers gladly give up their Saturdays and Sundays for an entire summer to ensure the families are happy and have a good time.

“I’m as thrilled today as I was when we first started this,” said Jim Lewis. “Elaine is the godsend that makes it happen,” he added.

“It’s really grown,” said Bobbi McLain, who has been involved with the mission for 29 years and is a former mission chairman. She stood behind a table Saturday, manning the juices, candy, snacks, crackers, chips and fudge – all available to anyone who wanted to help themselves.

“My memory has gotten bad and I’ve probably forgotten a lot,” said a beaming McLain as she rattled off details about the mission no one else had mentioned so far.

“We (the church) were going to at first buy the beach house that belonged to the Lewises, but it’s good that we didn’t: It’s just grown and grown each year.”

Paige, a member of the church and organizer of the mission for 21 years now, said this is her “passion” but was quick to admonish anyone who tried to credit her for the work she does.

“It’s about the children and without the generosity of our community, this wouldn’t be possible,” Paige said.

The women all smiled knowingly and conceded that Paige “puts her heart and soul into making this possible for eight months out of the year.”

On Sunday, three more families arrived and were greeted with the same warm and welcoming smiles and as much excitement as the day prior.

Kids get a Jason’s House T-shirt, a hat, a stuffed animal of their choice and even a makeover as local author Patricia David stood nearby with a smile and brushes at the ready.

Outside, members of the Grand Strand Corvette Club and Surfside Beach Fire Department flanked the parking lot, making themselves available for any child who wanted a fast ride in one of the cars or to sit high in the seat of a fire engine.

Florian Speck, who turned 8 on June 8, chose the fastest of the four: a C-7. After zooming around the parking lot a few times as Lee Ritchey looked on and directed traffic, Speck exited the car and announced “and now I’m going to the beach.”

Ritchey and his wife Linda are members at Surfside Beach United Methodist and have been volunteers for the mission for “many years now,” said Lee Ritchey. A former member of the Corvette Club, Ritchey recently traded his cool car for a boat. As for his volunteer duties, “now I do all ‘outdoor stuff,’” he said with a grin.

Speck and his parents, Oliver and Margaret from Richmond, Va., are here with younger brother Valentine, 3, who was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago. “We’re halfway through (with treatment),” said Oliver Speck. “This vacation is good for us.”

And it’s good for all the families who are overwhelmed and who have children who are fighters.

“It’s a wonderful project,” said Lewis.

Elaine Paige couldn’t agree more.

“From the moment they arrive in the parking lot, they’ll feel our love,” she said.