Vacation from the pain

29 years strong, Jason's House gives weeklong beach getaways to kids with cancer

By Jessica Connor

SURFSIDE BEACH — The Norman family, from Lynchburg, Va., knows what it's like to experience pain. Since their son Nathan was 2, he has been battling one type of cancer after another, three different rounds of chemotherapy, three different drugs: first brain cancer, then a spinal cord tumor, and after a short reprieve, they recently discovered one of the tumors is growing again.

While the family puts their trust in God, life can be difficult.

But at least for a week last summer, the Normans got to escape their pain and have the vacation of a lifetime on the white sands of Myrtle Beach, courtesy of Jason s House.

Jason s House, a 29-year-old ministry of Surfside United Methodist Church, gives kids with cancer a weeklong all-expenses-paid vacation for their entire family in an oceanfront hotel in the popular tourist destination. Not only do they get to spend their days playing in the waves or building sand castles, but they also get a bevy of free vouchers for everything from food to live shows to the famous Sky Wheel that sits 200 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

It s seven jam-packed days designed to bring a little carefree fun and light into the lives of families struggling with one of the worst possible experiences imaginable.

It was absolutely wonderful, said Dawn Norman, who homeschools their four children: Nathan, now 6, along with 3-, 7- and 10-year-old siblings. We would spend some time on the beach and then go do other things throughout the day. ¦ We could not even use all the different vouchers that had been given to us!

Norman said without Jason s House, her family never would have been able to enjoy a vacation like the one they experienced in Myrtle Beach. And happily, their week came during a time when Nathan was taking a forced break from his chemotherapy, which she said had taken such a toll on his body that he couldn t tolerate any more drugs.

They were such a blessing, Norman said of Jason s House, ticking off the places her family got to enjoy at the beach: miniature golf, theaters, Le Grand Cirque Adrenaline, Alabama Theatre, Pirate Adventures, the Ripley s attractions “ so many experiences she couldn t remember them all. What they do for families is just wonderful.

It s just like a big circus! said Elaine Paige, chair of Jason s House for the past 12 years. It is such a glorious thing to see their smiling faces, so excited to get to the beach.

From one tragedy, hundreds helped

Jason s House started at Surfside UMC 29 years ago inspired by the Lewis family, whose son Jason died of cancer. Paige said when Jim and Linda Lewis moved to Myrtle Beach, their son had already passed away, and they were struck with the idea of bringing other children with cancer to the beautiful destination for a free vacation.

Because of their tragedy, they have been able to bless hundreds and hundreds of families, Paige said.

The 100-percent-volunteer ministry serves only children with cancer, and books 60 families a year. Every family receives a week of accommodations at a beach hotel, plus hundreds of vouchers for food and entertainment.

While the time they spend at the beach is one of levity and escape, Paige said the reality of what these families endure is all too real. Some of the families they book for a vacation don t end up coming because their health deteriorates “ or worse. Last year, of the 59 families they booked, only 56 ended up coming.

I book in April, and some of them don t make it until the time they come, Paige said. Many of the kids go on to survive their battle with cancer; others die far too young. Sometimes this is their first vacation together as a family, and sometimes this is their last vacation together.

Paige lost her mother to cancer, so for her, the ministry is a true passion.

˜Makes you feel like you re helping somebody

Jason s House works through more than a dozen hospitals in the Southeast to identify children with cancer who could benefit from a family beach vacation. Volunteers then work to put the vacation packages together, coordinating with hotels, entertainment spots and restaurants to get the best of the best for these families “ all provided free of charge by business owners to the ministry.

Holiday Sands North is one of those hotels, giving about 10 rooms away each year to Jason s House.

We see those families when they re here, and we see a lot of happy smiling faces, said Garett Williams, hotel manager. At the end of the day, it makes you feel good. They ve got a lot going on in their lives ¦ and it makes you feel like you re helping somebody. I always like to think they might forget about what they re going through for a week.

For the Norman family, like many others who come to Myrtle Beach through Jason s House, they did get to escape their pain for a little while. They got to soak up some sun, play as a family and bask in the beauty of the South Carolina coast. And while today they re back to the struggles of chemo and medical bills and more, Dawn Norman says she will always be grateful to Jason s House for the gift they gave her family last summer.

It was amazing, Norman said simply.

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