For many who drive down Route 26 toward Bethany Beach, it’s impossible not to notice that big teal Adirondack chair that sits in front of a colorful beach house.
That house, Justin’s Beach House, is a home in the Bethany Beach area designed and built to serve families with cancer, so they may have a place of respite and enjoy some fun family time.
More than a decade ago, Mary Ellen and Craig Nantais lost their son Justin after a struggle with brain cancer, days before his 20th birthday. Shortly thereafter, the Justin W. Jennings Foundation was established.
By 2005, a group of local contractors and builders, Contractors for a Cause, teamed up with the Justin W. Jennings Foundation in an effort to help families in need and create Justin’s Beach House.
Now, in order to focus on providing a peaceful place for families dealing with cancer, Justin’s Beach House is hoping to have people and businesses in the community come forward and offer to pay one month’s mortgage payment for the house.
“We were sitting there thinking, ‘What could we do?’” said Kathy Green, executive director of Justin’s Beach House. “We’re hoping to ask for businesses, individuals, foundations, clubs, groups — whoever — to make a commitment to help us, by donating $2,000 a month to help us pay for the mortgage.”
The Mortgage of the Month (MOM) program will be used to satisfy the monthly mortgage payment, allowing the foundation to apply other non-restricted funds to pay down the principal.
“We’re looking for 21 donations of $2,000,” explained Green. “That commitment of $2,000 will meet our mortgage requirement, our monthly payment, and allow us to apply our other non-committed funds to pay down the principle. It’s a goal to have. Ideally, we’d love to have everything paid off by December 2015. That’s a very, very lofty goal for us, but we have to start somewhere.”
Green said that three people in the community have already signed up to be a part of the program — Jeff Baxter of the Jeff Baxter Mortgage Team, Mackie Banks of Banks Wines & Sprits and an anonymous donor.
“When they came up with the idea of having a Mortgage of the Month Club, because I’m in the mortgage business, I thought it was a perfect fit,” said Baxter, who has been supporting Justin’s Beach House for more than a year.
Baxter originally got involved after he participated in the Contractors for a Cause golf tournament at Cripple Creek Golf & Country Club.
“There are a lot of charities that raise money for research for cancer, but there are very few that do things for the families who are affected by it,” he said, “the ability to provide a respite even for just a week, a nice place at the beach or, hopefully, they can forget about things for seven days.”
Banks first became involved eight years ago, after meeting Mary Ellen and Craig Nantais at a benefit dinner.
“That’s when I met the Nantais family, and we’ve been involved ever since,” said Banks. “Her son died of a brain tumor. My father died of a brain tumor. We have that connection.”
Banks said that she and her family have been personally affected by cancer over the years and felt moved to support the foundation.
“It means a lot to me because I lost my grandmother, my aunt, my father and, 18 months ago, my husband to cancer,” she said. “I’m sure that any family in this community has had similar losses, and I think it’s a great way to honor your loved ones that you have lost, and to also show support to the living survivors.”
Banks Wines & Spirits signed up to cover the mortgage payments for January 2014 and January 2015.
“I personally would prefer to donate money toward the mortgage directly, so that I knew 100 percent of my money would go to the mortgage,” said Banks, noting that the funds would not be used to cover any expenses incurred from fundraising events.
Banks, who moved to the area in 1971, said the small community has always supported those in need.
“Everyone knew what was going on in each other’s families and when they needed help. When my son Ted had his accident and was paralyzed, the community stepped forward and helped us. Even though the community is larger now, it’s still small at heart.”
Banks encouraged those who have more room financially to give in the summer months to sign up to give later in the season.
“Donate any time of the year. If summer is your best season, sign up to donate in the summer. If you’re depressed after all this bad weather — donate. Donate money or donate your time, and you will feel better.”
She added that various community organizations, clubs, fraternities and sororities could sign up in groups and each contribute to paying a month’s mortgage.
“There are private clubs in the community that, instead of making that big bite, maybe three or four could each do $500. That would still go 100 percent toward the mortgage,” she said. “They could get together and make small but significant donations.”
Green said that once the mortgage can be paid off, the foundation hopes to be able to continue to raise funds for the operation and maintenance of the house and to create an endowment.
“We’re kind of excited about this,” she said of the Mortgage of the Month program. “We’re hoping this will get us to that next step.”
The house is currently being run through donations and fundraisers, such as the Justin’s Beach House 5K and the upcoming Fun Car Rallye II on March 22. Green said that, through these direct donations to the mortgage, the house will, they hope, be paid off quicker, so that more of donations can be spent on the general care of the house.
“Sometimes, when you have something like this that’s long term, people may get tired of supporting it. But it doesn’t make it any less important to the community, to the people who use the facility,” added Banks.
Green emphasized that Justin’s Beach House was made possible through the help of Contractors for a Cause.
“Since the beginning, Contractors for a Cause was instrumental in getting the house going. Since it was such a positive project that would reach out to help a lot of people, a lot of businesses, through the effort and the building, came on board,” she said, adding that most everything in the house was donated. “Through them and through their efforts, that house came to fruition.”
Going into its fourth summer, Justin’s Beach house has approximately 100 volunteers, and to date has hosted 81 families for three, four or seven days. The guests have included children and adults, both male and female, ranging in age from 2 to 87.
“We would love to have that house filled all year. That’s our goal,” Green said. “It’s pretty phenomenal the amount of support we received, because our families are not from here, they’re from elsewhere. In some cases, they’ve never been to the beach before. It’s just a special place and a healing place to come to at a very dark time in your life.”
Having seen the house come to fruition, Green said she’s still amazed by what has already been accomplished.
“It’s a positive, happy house. It’s just positive energy. When I drive by the house and see the lights on, I think, ‘Wow.’ It’s something pretty special.”
Green added that the foundation always welcomes donations, such as candy, popcorn, gift certificates and sunglasses, from area families and businesses for welcome care-packages that are given to each family during their stay.
“We do welcome buckets for the families when they come. The local community has just been phenomenal in helping us welcome our families. It just dominoes from one to the next.”
Baxter, Banks and Green all said they know times are tough but that they hope people will find it in their hearts to donate a little and help make a huge impact.
“It’s tough on your lives to carry a mortgage and make a mortgage payment every month, but just imagine how difficult it is for a charity to try and do the same thing,” said Baxter. “Anything you can do to help the charity do that, I think, is worthwhile.”
“Imagine being told your child has cancer,” said Banks. “You may be in need one day of this place. I think this home shows the compassion and commitment that our community has. Please help support them.”
“Let’s get this mortgage paid off, so we can move on and do bigger and better and things,” added Green. “We know it’s a lofty goal, and we know it’s a big ask. We’re hoping it’s a doable ask.”
For more information on the Justin W. Jennings Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, and Justin’s Beach House, visit www.justinjennings.org. For more information on the Mortgage of the Month program, call (302) 261-2510.