Jack & Jill helps terminal cancer patients make the most of their time with their children
By Tova Norman
Jon Albert has repeated one question thousands of times since founding the Atlanta-based Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation 10 years ago: If you were a young parent who just received a terminal diagnosis, what would be your first thought?
The answer is always the same: the children.
Linda Bachman was thinking about her son Jack when her husband, Doug Toma, found out his melanoma had returned and was untreatable.
“It was just a question of how long he had,” said Bachman, the director of the Office of University Experiential Learning at the University of Georgia.
Bachman was wondering how she would explain all of this to her first-grader. So she made an appointment with a social worker at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory in Atlanta. That is where she heard about JAJF.
Soon their family became one of the nearly 1,100 families to be treated to an all-expense-paid vacation of their choice by JAJF.
Prescribed by oncologists around the country, the trips JAJF provides for young families with a parent who has a terminal diagnosis have proved so beneficial that they have become a part of many treatment plans.
“Oncologists validate the medicinal impact that JAJF is having for these families, especially the children at such a vulnerable time,” CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, said in a video statement about JAJF. “Oncologists believe in the power of music and sports and beaches and sunsets and roller coasters and just fun, as a positive time together as a family as part of the treatment, and I believe it as well.”
On their JAJF WOW! trip to New York in 2010, Toma had the opportunity to show his son some of his own history and have some JAJF-trademarked WOW! Experiences: going backstage at “The Lion King,” taking a Circle Line cruise to the Statue of Liberty, and just experiencing the city as a family.
Bachman fondly remembers sitting on a bench in Central Park and having a hot dog. “My kid was just being a normal kid, having a quintessential New York experience, sharing a hot dog with his dad.”
Just a few months later, in May 2011, Toma died at age 47. Jack was 7.
The trip helped create forever memories for Jack.
“Jack has firsthand memories of his father. He was old enough at that time to have his own memories,” Bachman said. “His dad is still a part of who he is, and he knows that.”
Helping families create memories and get a break from the cancer diagnosis is exactly what Albert and his wife, Jill, who died of breast cancer the year the organization started, had in mind.
“People thought I was crazy back then because my wife was dying, and we had two young kids,” Albert said.
Joel Babbit, the CEO and co-founder of the Mother Nature Network and a supporter of JAJF, remembers the beginning.
“People respond to tragic events in different ways. When Jill passed away, Jon decided he would respond in the most positive way possible: by helping others that were facing similar situations,” Babbit said.
He said that understanding is reflected in the work JAJF does. “I think a big part of the organization’s success is the fact that Jon is not just some executive that has been charged with running things. He is someone that can relate very closely to the needs that exist, someone that has gone through the same thing these families are experiencing.”
After doing eight months of research and realizing the true need for an organization that helps the whole family, Albert knew JAJF would be worthwhile and successful.
“If we could build momentum, I knew that we would touch hearts,” he said.
Sammy Grant, the founder and president of SG Financial Advisors, is one of the people who have been committed from the beginning. After meeting Albert at the Marcus Jewish Community Center, where Albert was the chief marketing officer until he resigned to launch the foundation, Grant knew he wanted to be a part of the organization.
“I was inspired by what he was able to do under such tough personal circumstances: to create memories for families going through similar experiences,” said Grant, who started his own business the year that the foundation was created. “Around Thanksgiving of that first year, I decided, in lieu of holiday gifts for my clients, I would make a donation in their honor. Jack and Jill was the first organization I supported, and Jon’s gratitude and his stories of the happy memories created in part because of our help inspired me to continue the giving tradition every year since then.”
Beginning this year, those interested in supporting JAJF have a new way to give.
In January the foundation launched the WOW! Society, which allows people to donate a given amount over five years.
Albert said it costs about $1,500 per family per trip “from door to door.” Most of the trip is supported by in-kind donations from hotels, tourist destinations and more, but Albert said the organization wants to make sure families do not have to think about anything except packing.
WOW! Society members can arrange to meet the families who benefit and receive digital albums similar to those each family gets from the trip. More information about the WOW! Society and the foundation in general is available at www.JAJF.org.
Albert said donors can see the return on investment in the smiles of the families they support.
The foundation operates with little overhead. It has just two employees, and 92 percent of the total operating budget goes directly to the families.
Babbit recognized the impact of the organization despite its small size. Albert “has done an incredible job,” he said. “The results he has been able to achieve are higher than many other charitable organizations that have much bigger staffs and far more resources.”
For Albert, it’s all about helping families, and he built the lean structure of the organization deliberately.
After 10 years of success — being featured on the “Today” show twice, on “CBS Sunday Morning,” in The Wall Street Journal and in USA Today — Albert is trying to continue the growth of the organization.
“Now it’s time. I won’t be bashful on behalf of these children who are losing their moms and dads,” he said. “We’re about living life. We’re about family, and that just relates to everyone.”
Ed Borg of Atlanta knows all too well the impact that JAJF can have. Before his wife, Tina, died in October 2012, the family — Ed, Tina and their then-teenage daughters, Michelle and Sydney — took a trip to Hollywood and attended the Grammys.
“The most important thing is it created memories that will live forever,” said Borg, a child of Holocaust survivors who is originally from Skokie, Ill. “It caused a paradigm shift. We went from focusing on the treatments and the inevitable death of my wife to living and making the most of the time that we had left.”