Jerry “JJ” Messana grew up in Monmouth County, NJ. He attended CBA and Monmouth University. Within months of starting at MU, he was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma. Despite his diagnosis, Jerry never let his cancer stop him. While undergoing countless rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries, he managed to graduate Monmouth University and best of all, marry his college sweetheart. Although JJ was 20 years old when he was diagnosed, Memorial Sloan Kettering placed him on the pediatric floor due to the nature of his diagnosis. JJ and his family spent 8 years in the pediatric wing of the hospital watching newborns, infants, children, and teens battle cancer. This was an eye opening and life changing experience.JJ, being an older “kid” in the hospital, would try to make every younger child smile, a cause Friends of JJ is pursuing to this day.
When JJ passed in 2014, the Messana family decided to start Friends of JJ to continue JJ’s efforts to make these children SMILE!
Toys of Joy
Every Holiday Season Friends of JJ teams up with schools, businesses and organizations to collect presents for children and families spending their holiday season at a hospital. Throughout the festive time of year, with the help of our amazing volunteers, we pick up and deliver toys and gift cards to 25+ hospitals across NJ, NY & PA. Brenna, Chris and their family personally visit with hundreds of pediatric patients throughout the season and a few lucky families might even get a visit from Santa Claus! We have also loved hosting a Pop-Up-Shop at a local hospital or two each season where the patients and their families can find a fun way to shop for all their holiday gifts without leaving the hospital. The amount of smiles we are able to bring during the holiday season with these initiatives is incredible and we wouldn’t be able to accomplish them without the generosity of our donors and volunteers to reach hospitals in and beyond our community.
Coaches for a Cause
Hosted by Carl Leschinski & Toms River FC, Coaches For a Cause is our two-day soccer tournament benefiting our Toys of Joy fundraiser. Local soccer teams from the shore area compete in this charity tournament and we are continuously amazed by everyone’s generosity and kindness. We humbly ask each player to donate a toy to Toys of Joy for their participation and teams are kind enough to make additional contributions to Friends of JJ. After two days of fun on the fields, each years’ tournament leaves us with new memories, friends and reasons to celebrate JJ’s memory and cause.
Stirring Up Smiles for Halloween
Friends of JJ brings the Halloween fun directly to the hospital! To help children and families partake in the spookiest of seasons, Friends of JJ sends costumes and gifts to hospitals across NJ, NY and PA. An annual Halloween party takes place for the patients and families at St. Peter’s University Hospital where the children are thrilled to receive a special visit from their favorite Princess or Superhero. To make the evening extra special, each patient and their siblings pick out their own Halloween costume and gift, letting them have the full Halloween experience right from the pediatric floor.
Taking Care of Caretakers
In addition to lifting up and inspiring the children of Friends of JJ, we find it is important that we bring hope to the moms, dads, and caretakers who fight alongside their children every day. We deliver personalized kits for these individuals, with toiletries, goodies, and an inspirational bracelet in collaboration with Nichole Melfi of KEEP Collective. We think it is important to support the amazing and inspiring people behind the pediatric patients and have donated over 200 of Nichole’s bracelets to these special, deserving people.
As 2020 brought about changes to everyday life, Friends of JJ quickly pioneered initiatives to reach families in a safe and loving manner. Our Smile Boxes are a way for our organization to help families with sick children in a time when face to face outreach isn’t always the most beneficial or feasible way to lend a hand. Every month, Friends of JJ finds children and families in need in the local community, through friendly referrals, on social media, etc. and curates personalized gift boxes that would best suit their needs. We have filled boxes with toys, gift cards, grocery store cards, video games, backpacks, fun items and other essentials that help to alleviate some of the burden of having a child suffering from a pediatric disease. This has become one of our favorite and most impactful ways to reach out to local families and we look forward to expanding the scope of our Smile Boxes as our presence and the unyielding support of our benefactors grows.
If you know a child in need of a Smile Box, please send us their story and contact information.
St. Jerome Award
Each year, Friends of JJ honors Jerry’s memory by endowing one Christian Youth Organization member with the St. Jerome Award and Scholarship. This award is given in memory of Jerry, for putting his faith in Jesus Christ in action through service and love for others. As of 2020, we have presented five deserving recipients who have shown acts of faith similar to Jerry’s with this honor at a special Mass and Giving Ceremony dedicated to this award. Thank you to Marie Masiello and St. Gabriel’s Parish’s Christian Youth Organization for organizing this event.
Ladies Night Out- Shop, Sip, Support
Every Spring, Friends of JJ hosts Ladies Night Out- an evening when we invite our friends to shop, sip and support at a curated bazaar featuring local boutiques, businesses and live entertainment to raise money for our cause. Traditionally, we host over 100 benefactors for a night filled with great shopping, gift baskets and delicious food & drinks. The annual raffle held at this event includes items from stores, spas, restaurants throughout Monmouth County and even designer handbags! We are grateful for our returning sponsors, donors and attendees who make this one of our favorite annual events and look forward to continuing this tradition!
Tablets For Pediatric Units
We love visiting with and providing comfort for children in person when we can, but we have also found ways to support them when we can’t. Our tablet donation program has provided hospitals with a way to distract children undergoing frightening or painful procedures with a tv show, movie, or game to take their mind off of the amazing but sometimes scary work of the nurses and doctors. As of 2020, we have been able to donate 50+ tablets, kid proof cases and screen protectors to Child Life Teams at our hospitals. Through the amazing generosity of our supporters of this initiative, we know we have made these procedures a little more enjoyable for the children. This is a program we continuously run through our Amazon Wish List and we look forward to helping more hospitals with these devices when we can.