Jake's Group helps children remember 'Life is good'

Jake's Crew is an organization dedicated to putting a smile on sick children's faces.

Its story is one about paying it forward.

Valerie Johnson founded the nonprofit group after a bout with leukemia in 2004. She was admitted to the hospital and was away from home for three months, received a bone marrow transplant, had more follow-up appointments than she can remember and so much lab work she started to feel like a pincushion.

The process, however intolerable, was worthwhile - Johnson is celebrating her fifth year in remission.

Though the disease was conquered in her body, Johnson continued to have nightmares about the faces she'd seen - particularly those of sick children and the family members who sat by their bedsides day in and day out.

"When I looked into their eyes I could see the fear set in," Johnson said. "I wanted to be the person to cheer them on but I didn't know how."

With a doctor's order to keep the sun off her face and to start an active exercise program, Johnson stumbled into Swain's Outdoor looking for a brimmed hat.

The sales clerk recommended one hanging on the wall. What Johnson found was a hat that said, "Life is good." with a smiley face on it, known across the nation as "Jake."

"As a recovering cancer patient, the hat had such a positive meaning for me," Johnson said.

"With smiley Jake's face on the back of my cap, it made others smile as well as myself each time that I walk because I never walk alone ... I have smiley Jake with me always."

As the cashier rang up her purchase, Johnson had a vision. She wanted to share smiley Jake and the Life is good "Do what you like, like what you do" motto with recovering cancer patients.

Though the foundation took awhile to build, Jake's Crew is up and running. Volunteers started delivering hats to patients at Seattle Children's Hospital once a month two years ago and have given more than 500 to sick youths. The "hat cart," which travels from room to room, has dozens of colors and designs to choose from.

"One of the many reactions the children have shared was a 3-year-old being pushed around on her IV pole by her mother," Johnson said.

"Her mother picked a bright pink hat that had a cupcake and the word 'Sweetie' on it. The little girl pulled off her knitted hat and with excitement put the cap on and started clapping."

Because Jake's Crew is affiliated with the Sequim Guild of Clallam County, additional money raised is donated to the Seattle hospital's uncompensated care fund.

The best part about being on Jake's Crew, according to Sharon Cone, is seeing the happiness that donating something as simple as a hat creates.

"They are meeting all these challenges alone and that's scary," Cone said.

"Just showing up with a smile, it helps."

Johnson uses her experience with leukemia to give children hope.

"Time heals. I've been there and done it and I can let parents and their children know they will look normal and feel normal again," she said.

Ashley Miller can be reached at ashleyo@sequim

Make a difference

in a child's life

The Sequim Guild of Clallam County has a simple mission: To help children.

Members fulfill that mission in many ways: hosting bunco games, outreach luncheons, Dine Out for Kids, children's day at Jardin du Soleil, a holiday bazaar, monthly workshops, selling fashion scarves and offering "Purchase a Miracle" items at local grocery stores.

Each event and activity has a common denominator - raising money for Seattle Children's Hospital's uncompensated care fund.

Since its inception in 1907, Seattle Children's Hospital has promoted "never turn away a child in need of medical attention due to its family's inability to pay."

Groups, such as the Sequim Guild, help cover those costs.

In 2008, the hospital treated 263,667 patients through its uncompensated care fund. Of those patients, 1,184 from Clallam County received uncompensated care, totaling $622,862 worth of medical expenses.

The guild was able to provide $95,710 of that money.

For more information, call Marty McMillin, Sequim Guild president, at 683-6864.

Where to find Jake's Crew next

Jake's Crew will be at the Sequim Music & Movie in the Park series at the James Center for the Performing Arts just north of Carrie Blake Park, 202 N. Blake Ave.

Concerts and movies are expected to kick off from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday nights at the James Center for the Performing Arts beginning June 23 and running through Sept. 8. Jake's Crew will offer food, beverages and Life is good.(r) products to benefit Seattle Children's Hospital.

Representatives of the Sequim Guild of Clallam County also will be on site some evenings.

For more information about Jake's Crew, call 683-0867 or 417-5545.

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