Joy in jars

From left, studentd Megan McGhee and McCallister Selva, both 14, of Our Lady Queen of Angels students talk with Erik Rees, the CEO of the Jessie Rees Foundation, as they fill JoyJars to give to pediatric cancer patients. JoyJars were the brainchild of Erik's daughter Jessie, who died of cancer in January 2012. As an outpatient at Children Hospital of Orange County, Jessie came up with the idea for JoyJars to help pediatric patients. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / June 4, 2013)

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Erik Rees told a room of eighth-graders at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Newport Beach that his daughter, Jessie, would be their age right now.

She was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor on March 3, 2011, and given 12 to 18 months to live, Rees said. Jessie died in January 2012.

On Tuesday morning, he was back at Our Lady Queen of Angels to thank students there for following Jessie's example and giving of themselves for others.

They were filling jars and bags with toys and trinkets that will be distributed to sick youths at children's hospitals across the nation.

Jessie came up with the idea for the JoyJars, small packages of gifts, after leaving Children's Hospital of Orange County, where she was receiving outpatient treatment, Rees said.

"She asked on the way home one day, 'Mom and dad, when do all the other kids come home?'" he said.

When she found out many of them could not leave the hospital, she started her JoyJar drive. And she

created 3,000 of them before she died, her father said.

Now, students her age and younger were continuing the effort at the private Newport school.

"She would have been in the eighth grade, so it's kind of bittersweet," said Rees, who is chief executive officer of the Jessie Rees Foundation, which has continued her vision.

Students at Our Lady Queen of Angels worked on their JoyJars throughout the entire year, the school's enrichment co-chairwoman Christie McKenna said.

They collected small toys like Matchbox cars and LEGO bricks, McKenna said, and a spare-change drive brought in $1,400 to help fund the effort, she said.

"It's been very student pushed," eighth-grader McCallister Selva said.

In September, she and her classmates heard Jessie's story when her father came to speak.

"A lot of us were in tears knowing she would have been in eighth grade like us," McCallister said.

Knowing they were helping kids their own age motivated them, she explained.

By the end of the school day Tuesday, the eighth-graders had packed 456 jars or bags to be shipped to hospitals.

"We have so much," said Megan McGhee, another eighth-grader who was folding bandannas to slip into the jars. "And it's nice to give back."

More information about Joy Jars and the Jessie Rees Foundation is available at facebook.com/JessieReesFoundation.