Justin’s Beach House kicks off summer season with newlyweds
As the Memorial Day weekend ushered in visitors, new and old, to the Delaware beaches, and the warm summer sun continues to shine down on the locals throughout the community, residents and visitors alike are reminded how beautiful and appealing the area can be. It simple to get caught up in our daily routines of work, school, chores and errands, and many forget to take a little moment and breathe. But the Justin W. Jennings Foundation is doing exactly that – giving a little bit of time and solace to those who need it most.
In September of 2009, the foundation broke ground with their leading project, Justin’s Beach House, a respite home that gives families up to a week in Bethany Beach, away from the stresses of hospitals and treatment for those who are fighting or have recently overcome cancer.
The project was the vision of Craig and Mary Ellen Nantais, who in 2000 lost their son Justin Jennings, at age 19, after his battle with brain cancer. Justin’s Beach House was designed to resonate his love and passion for the beach and serve as an escape from the hardships that other cancer patients and their families experience, day in and day out.
After construction was completed, Justin’s Beach House saw its first visitors over New Year’s in January 2011. Since then, summer weeks and holidays quickly filled up with families who have been eager to get away, clear their minds and enjoy time with friends and family in Bethany and the surrounding community.
And in early May, Justin’s Beach House saw its first newlywed couple, who were more than grateful to take some time for themselves.
“It had been about five years ago since I was in Ocean City, Md.,” recalled Jennifer Disney, who came to Justin’s Beach House with her new husband, Christopher, “so coming to Bethany Beach was a new experience.”
Just over a year ago, in early spring, Jennifer — then Jennifer McKay — had come down with a cough that didn’t seem to improve.
“Doctors were dismissing it as asthma, allergies and pneumonia,” she recalled, “but in July, when it wasn’t getting better, I went to the hospital for a biopsy and found out I had lymphoma.”
In fact, she had developed a malignant, softball-sized tumor in her chest that was obstructing her lung. She started chemotherapy treatment in August of 2011 and continued with five more treatments, as well as 17 radiation treatments. She said that, thankfully, her health has drastically improved as she continues her recovery.
Although times were tough, she credited her friends, family and Christopher with helping her get through it all.
“It was so comforting knowing that if I needed anything at all,” she said, “my family and his, and Chris himself, were there with anything I needed. He works full-time, every day, and every morning, I’d email him how I was feeling. If I missed a day or two, he’d get worried. He made sure I was alright all the time.”
The two, who had been high-school sweethearts and have been together for 12 years, decided to show just how strong their love was. On April 6, 2012, they were wed at the courthouse in Annapolis, Md. Despite the joyous celebration, the daunting worries were always around.
“Sometimes,” said Jennifer, “it got so stressful between the planning, the doctor visits, the bills, so it was really nice to be able to come to the beach and get away from it all. It’s so nice there, and it really helps take your mind off of everything.”
The stay at Justin’s Beach House was just as much for Chris as it was for Jennifer.
“He has always been my rock,” she said. “It was really nice to be able to give him a vacation, too. He has definitely earned it.”
Upon their arrival, along with gift cards, welcomes and marriage congrats from the community, they found a number of items that catered specifically to them.
“I think it’s so generous and incredible what the foundation is doing with Justin’s Beach House,” she added. “Everyone was so nice. Chris and I were kind of on our honeymoon, and there was champagne, wedding cake, cookies and beautiful flowers waiting for us. It was really nice, a lot more personal than I expected it to be.”
She noted that they enjoyed the Bethany Beach and Ocean City boardwalks, and even received a free photo shoot together on the beach. Their week coincided with Ocean City’s Springfest, which the two were able to stop by, as well.
“We really wanted to give them a special week here,” said Kathy Green, executive director of Justin’s Beach House. “The greeters and everyone who chipped in really had everything prepared perfectly. The two really had a beautiful time here.”
“I think it’s amazing what [Justin’s Beach House] is doing,” Jennifer added. “Going through everything from the start, all the doctor’s appointments, not feeling well all the time — it can be very stressful, and it’s hard on your loved ones, too. They’re sacrificing their time, as well. It’s such a great project that really helps people who need to get away.”
And, by the look of things, Justin’s Beach House is set to do just that. Every week through September is booked solid this year, with families getting their moment in the sun, away from the treatments and doctor visits. Major holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, are booked this year, too. Patients as young as infants and toddlers to some as old as 87 will come for a stay in Justin’s Beach House this year, hailing from Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Virginia and New York.
And the community is doing all they can to ensure a comfortable, relaxing visit.
“We have so many businesses in the area donating time and gift cards to the families that come to Justin’s Beach House,” said Green, “and we couldn’t do it without them. We’re getting closer each year to filling the house all year long. We’re still taking applications and trying to fill more weeks through this fall.”
In fact, requests are already coming in for next year’s summer season. Applications are submitted by patients, or their friends or families. Qualified patients can be of any ethnicity, gender or age, as long as they are currently going through treatment or have been out of treatment for one year or less.
And for those who want to give toward Justin’s Beach House in their own way, there are plenty of options.
This past weekend, the Justin W. Jennings Foundation will hosted the 4th Annual JWJ Annual Memorial Day 5K. The run/walk, which took place on Saturday, May 26, in downtown Bethany Beach. The run is one of the JWJ Foundation’s biggest fundraising efforts of the year, with all of the proceeds directly benefitting Justin’s Beach House.
“We had a great turnout,” said Green. “There were 512 runners and walkers, in addition to the children who ran our Kiddie Fun Run.”
Coinciding with the holiday weekend, many were repeat participants who had registered for the race in years past.
“We had some people who ran and walked last year who made it a point to be back and pre-registered for this race, too,” said Green. “But we couldn’t have done it without the help and support of the community, the Town of Bethany Beach, the police and fire department, and all of our sponsors. Sue McKone, our 5K emcee, really did a great job getting it all together, and our committee works really hard every year.”
For more information about the Justin W. Jennings Foundation, Justin’s story or to make a donation or get involved, visit www.justinjennings.org.
Pick up the Coastal Point each week for information on additional events to benefit Justin’s Beach House and the JWJ Foundation throughout the upcoming months, including a golf tournament on Wednesday, June 6, at the Ocean City Country Club, sponsored by the Fenwick Island Ravens Roost, a Farm-to-Table dinner hosted at Good Earth Market on Tuesday, June 19, and the annual Contractors for a Cause golf tournament at Cripple Creek, which will return on Oct. 5.