Kids take vacation from cancer thanks to church
At the Wilhide home in North Carolina, summer vacation is over but memories are keeping the experience alive. Sisters Conleigh and Piper ask their dolls out loud, “Do you want to go back to Jason’s House?” A week in Myrtle Beach was a dream come true and a welcomed respite for this young family who has been through so much.
Jason’s House is not a building. It is a ministry of Surfside United Methodist Church that gives children with cancer and their families a vacation in South Carolina. The Wilhides were one of 50 families invited to enjoy a free week at the beach this summer.
Two-year-old Piper Wilhide is a cancer survivor. At four-weeks-old, doctors found a tumor on her spine. When Piper started treatment, Randy and Haleigh Wilhide made sacrifices to care for their sick infant along with their older daughter, Conleigh. Haleigh left her job to be with Piper at the hospital, the clinic, and during recovery at home. “I basically turned into a nurse taking care of my daughter,” says Wilhide, “My husband tried to keep life normal for Conleigh.” Piper has undergone six rounds of chemo and two surgeries. Her cancer is in remission but clinical treatments are ongoing every few months.
Fourteen partnering hospitals in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia refer families like the Wilhides to Jason’s House. Surfside member Elaine Paige has been with the ministry for 21 years. She is the chairwoman and a tireless volunteer for Jason’s House. "The goal of Jason's House is to give these families that are burdened with cancer a week of stress-free enjoyment away from chemo and doctors and all the problems of life, to come to Myrtle Beach and not have to worry about money," says Paige.
Participants are given vouchers to cover lodging, meals, attractions and tips thanks to donations from Myrtle Beach area businesses and individuals. When families arrive, they are met by volunteer trip planners. Haleigh Wilhide was impressed by all the choices. “We spread out the pamphlets all over the table. It was a dream vacation,” she recalls. The Wilhide girls loved parasailing and just hanging out in the hotel pool. The Tropical Seas Motel donated a room for the week and changed their marquee to say, “Welcome Piper.”
Surfside United Methodist Church started Jason’s House in 1984 in support of a family from the congregation who lost their six-year-old son to cancer. Church members are among the 200 volunteers who work year-round to make sure summers are special. Surfside member Ann Vereen welcomes guests and helps them plan their week. The team makes sure there is always love and joy in the room when the families come to town. “The policy is hugs,” says Vereen.
Some families will come to Sunday worship while they are visiting. Others get a first taste of Christian love and hospitality when they come to Surfside for Jason’s House. “One little girl had never been in a church and she wanted to see the sanctuary. It does open doors for them,” says Vereen. “It shows what Christians are about. We like to be that witness.”
Hotels and tourist attractions have a high turnover rate among employees. Jason’s House volunteers face a significant challenge each year maintaining relationships with supporting businesses, and educating new owners and managers about the program. Churches and individuals also pitch in to come up with about $25,000 a year in cash to pay for tips and other incidental expenses that donated vouchers don’t cover. An incredible amount of work and generosity are behind the success of Jason’s House.
Elaine Paige recognizes that keeping a ministry thriving for more than 30 years is an amazing accomplishment. “I’m not surprised because when the Lord is involved, He will provide,” says Paige. The value of the vacations given away to thousands of families over three decades adds up to millions of dollars. But for guests of Jason’s House, this week of fun and family time is priceless.