A Heart-Rending Tale of Keeping Dreams Alive

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The life of a heart-transplant recipient is memorialized with the celebration of "Jessie's Day" in Philadelphia.

It was 20 years ago on Rosh Hashanah that Janice Schwartz’s daughter, Jessica, received a heart transplant after years of medication and hospitalization to treat congenital heart defects.
 
“She had her first surgery at 10 months,” says her mom, a retired schoolteacher from Rydal.
 
When Jessica died 11 years ago — having met a goal of getting into and thriving academically in college, although not without chronic physical difficulty — her mother and other members of the family decided to honor the Abington Senior High School graduate with an appropriate degree of celebration. Nothing, they reasoned, could be more satisfying than a salute to academic achievement manifested by the Temple University journalism major, who died at age 23 in 2003.
 
“It was such a struggle for her,” said her mom, and Jessica’s goal of earning a bachelor’s degree fell a year short when her heart gave way.
 
But her family and friends  didn’t want Jessica’s efforts to succeed and live a normal life to be lost to time. This story is about their mitzvah heroics.
 
Shortly after Jessica died, Janice joined her other daughter, Laura, now 38, and sister-in-law Robin in establishing “Jessie’s Day.” Proceeds from the annual celebration of Jessica Schwartz’s vibrant life and attitude go toward scholarships for pediatric transplant recipients.
 
In 11 years of successful fundraising in association with the regional Gift of Life Donor Program, the group has awarded close to $100,000 in scholarships.
 
This year’s event takes place Sept. 14 at the Urban Saloon in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, with support from a number of sponsors, including The Capital Grille, West Avenue Grille, Matz Jewelers and Field House. The afternoon event has music and a silent auction on its agenda.
 
Performing mitzvot has been a lifelong source of meaning for Janice Schwartz, the vice president at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, where she helps tend to the “mitzvah garden.” She senses, she says, that she “inherited” the value of giving back to the community from her mother, who was active for years in Hadassah.
 
“It gives me nachas to do this,” she says of her efforts to make “Jessie’s Day” an ongoing success.
 
“It was so important to Jessica to stay in school, to keep up with her class” at both Abington High and Temple, says her mom.
 
In a way, the scholarship recipients are doing just that for her. 
 
“I’ve watched so many of the scholarship recipients grow up over time,” says Janice. “They are getting the miracle [of life] my daughter didn’t get.”
 
What Janice Schwartz gets each time she hands out a scholarship is a sense of fulfillment of the dream her daughter once had. And that sense of achievement, she says, “helps with the loss and grief.”
 
Tickets for the event can be purchased at: www.jessiesday.org 

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