“A smile could make the difference.”
“My sister passed away when she was nine years old, due to cerebral palsy and a few other things. My family and I know what it’s like to have someone that you love spend every single day of their life fighting something. I can remember being in a hospital room with my sister, and Child Life or someone nice would come and visit—it just changed the whole mood of the whole day. Our family is forever grateful for the people that would impact us in that way during my sister’s fight. People used to do this all the time for our family, and I feel like I need to do something for someone else’s family.”
T.J. Collett has made it his personal mission to bring a foundation that’s close to his heart closer to his home in the Bluegrass. T.J., a baseball player in his final season at the University of Kentucky, learned about the Jessie Rees Foundation when he was in high school. After hearing about Jessie Rees, a twelve-year-old girl who lost her battle with cancer in 2012, and her mission to bring joy and encouragement to every other child with cancer, T.J. knew that he wanted to make her mission his own.
“I just fell in love with what they stood for—focusing more on care, rather than the cure. There’s so many people that are focusing on the cure that sometimes the care for the patients actually gets forgotten. That’s why I thought it was just so cool, they were doing something just a little different than anything else that I’ve heard. The next day, I approached them and said that I want to do work for them.”
After fundraising and raising awareness of the foundation in his hometown in Indiana, T.J. set a goal for himself when he came to Lexington: to get the University of Kentucky involved with the Jessie Rees Foundation. With the support of his coaches, teammates, the University of Kentucky and Kentucky Children’s Hospital, T.J. made it happen.
For the past three years, T.J. and his teammates have packed and delivered JoyJars for children at Kentucky Children’s Hospital. JoyJars are the signature gift of the Jessie Rees Foundation: plastic jars packed full of coloring books, cards, and toys, meant to spark joy in a child’s day. T.J. and his teammates also started visiting patients and families in the hospital, and honoring them at baseball games. During each home game, a Kentucky Children’s Hospital patient and their family are invited to hang out in the dugout with the team before the game, play catch with the players, and open up a JoyJar together. They’re also honored with a standing ovation during the game—T.J.’s favorite part of the experience.
“The overall mission of the Jessie Rees Foundation is to encourage not only the kid, but the kid and their families, to never ever give up. That was Jessie’s motto that she coined—just never ever give up. That’s the point of the JoyJars and everything they stand for, so it’s pretty cool to see that happening. You just see their smile, it’s so big, standing on top of our dugout. It’s pretty incredible.”
Today, T.J. continues to partner with the Child Life team at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, even in the age of COVID. Although in-person visits aren’t possible due to the pandemic, T.J. and others on the team have taken their visits into the virtual space, chatting with patients and families over Zoom every week. As he begins graduate school at the University of Kentucky, he plans to carry on his and Jessie’s mission for kids at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.
“Jessie’s mission was to get a JoyJar in every little kid’s hands fighting cancer. That’s where I took my role in trying to do my part right here in Lexington. They’ve reached hundreds of countries, and the JoyJars are all over the world. I’m happy that both UK HealthCare and the athletic program have let me and the rest of my teammates, and some of the other athletic programs, leave our mark right here in Lexington for Jessie. She knew that a smile could make the difference in a fight. One smile can change their day, and a day could change their entire fight.”