“The day we found out Lauryn’s diagnosis, it was like having a nightmare.” That’s how Lauryn’s father, Richard Lewis, explains how he felt when his family heard that the swollen lymph node on his daughter’s neck was cancer.
On that day, the Lewises began a journey no parent ever wants to take – yet so many find themselves traveling down the path of uncertainty and fear. “The fifteen-minute conversation we had with the doctor Turned our world upside down. We have been affected mentally, emotionally, and physically.”
Roger and Rachel Reynolds of Ashland understand what the Lewis family is describing all too well. Their daughter Charlotte Jennie, fondly known to friends as CJ, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor in January 2009. She was just three years old. In an instant, their lives also changed forever and they were facing questions and emotions they never imagined. Over the next twelve months, Charlotte would go through three separate brain surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments in the attempt to shrink and kill the growing tumor. The family had countless extended hospital stays on the pediatric Floor of VCU Medical Center and even traveled to Houston to receive treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center. In early November of that year, it became clear that all treatment options had been exhausted, and on January 7, 2010, Charlotte lost her battle with cancer.
During the twelve months of CJ’s treatment, the Reynolds’ felt the support of friends, family, and even complete strangers, receiving meals and gift cards from their network on a regular basis. The couple realized the importance of a strong support system for a family of a child with a chronic or life-threatening illness. A family just like the Lewises. They founded CJ’s Thumbs Up Foundation (CJSTUF) to honor Charlotte’s memory, and as a way to pay forward the support they received during their daughter’s treatment.
To that end, CJSTUF awards families $500 financial assistance grants to be used however the family decides. Knowing how difficult it is to get a decent meal during a long hospital stay or while traveling, the nonprofit also established the Meal Fairies Program to provide healthy meals for families staying on the pediatric floor of VCU Medical Center and at Ronald McDonald House of Richmond on Monument Avenue. CJSTUF provides assistance to families of children with any chronic and life-threatening illness, not just cancer, including cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and many more.
In just four years, CJSTUF has provided more than $68,000 in financial assistance to 136 families, and provided close to six thousand healthy meals through Meal Fairies. CJSTUF is successfully meeting the needs in Richmond, and just recently expanded their services to include families being treated at University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville.
Working to meet the financial and emotional needs of local families in crisis, founder Roger Reynolds says CJSTUF is about perpetuating the important idea that for families in these heartwrenching circumstances, every additional day with their child is a bonus.
“It’s really amazing how far a hot, healthy meal, or some extra money will take a person in crisis. That $500 check is really not that much money, but it’s about more than just food and a few bucks. We’re giving out hope,” Roger says. “When we were in the thick of it with Charlotte, the smallest act of kindness meant so much. We didn’t feel quite so alone. We’ve been there and have a clue how it is, so we wanted to keep the energy of our network flowing to other families.”