Contractors rally for cancer with project

Families dealing with the trauma of a loved one’s struggle against cancer, more than anyone else, need a place to find some peace and solitude. They may soon have an opportunity to escape to the beach for a respite.

Local builders, formerly focused on diabetes through Contractors for a Cure, have expanded their focus as the renamed Contractors for a Cause, and are looking for a piece of land in the Bethany Beach area, where they would like to build a haven for such overwhelmed families.

They recently sold out their 1st Annual Gala in support of those efforts, in partnership with the Justin W. Jennings Foundation.

Foundation Chair Mary Ellen Nantais, Jennings’ mother, thanked everyone who contributed to the cause, and especially some of the event organizers.

Nantais said Miken’s Mike Cummings in particular had brought the path toward the Contractors for a Cure/Justin W. Jennings Foundation partnership into view.

She met Cummings through construction projects at DuPont, and said they’d developed some camaraderie there. After Nantais moved to South Bethany, she said Cummings would come over periodically, check on the family, help out with some of the odds and ends.

Her son was sick, but she recalled his willing spirit. “He wanted a job,” she said. “He was tired of just sitting around.”

Cummings gave him the opportunity to get out of the house and stay busy. Jennings worked for a couple days, but according to Nantais, he was just too weak.

Shortly thereafter, at 20 years of age, Jennings finally succumbed to his illness.

The family sold their beach house, and built in the Ocean View area, Nantais said. They worked with Frank Miranda and Mark Hardt (Miranda & Hardt) on that project, and so made another pair of local contacts.

“I think I was meant to meet these people for a reason,” she said. “Who would have known — who could have imagined I’d meet the people who would have been able to help us?”

Jennings was 17 when doctors diagnosed his terminal brain cancer (1998). It was glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a very aggressive form of cancer that typically strikes older individuals, Nantais said, and her son’s case received a fair amount of attention because of that.

According to his mother’s account, he’d been working toward admittance to Penn State with all attention, and refused to set those goals aside. The family worked out the logistics of getting him to daily cancer treatments and classes, and Jennings did quite well (As and Bs), despite struggling with the effects of the chemotherapy.

Along the way, he had the chance to meet one of his favorite athletes — Orioles outfielder Derrick May. Nantais said she just happened to be friends with May’s mother-in-law. She’d never realized there was a connection until she happened to repeat her son’s comments on the ballplayer’s ability came up in conversation one day.

“One day, we were at the doctor’s office, and Derrick walked into the lobby,” she remembered. “Justin’s jaw just dropped.”

They formed a friendship, and according to Nantais, May later said, as honored as he felt to hang his gear in a locker next to the one that belonged to the legendary Cal Ripken’s, he was more honored to have been at Jennings’ Penn State awards ceremony.

Jennings’ doctors eventually cleared him for attendance at the main campus, and he was able to spend one good semester with friends, Nantais said. He even went away to Woodstock that summer (1999).

However, his condition worsened again through fall and into winter. Penn State granted Jennings a certificate of achievement in January 2000, inducting him into the alumni association and presenting him with the Nittany Lion Award.

His health improved again for a time, and he was considering plans for another year at Penn State, but passed away in June 2000.

Nantais said he probably would have been embarrassed by all the fuss of the Justin W. Jennings Foundation and Contractors for a Cause. However, she said he’d been driving toward a psychology degree, and had always expressed goals of helping families — especially children.

“After he died, I didn’t think I should let that legacy go,” Nantais stated.

“When Justin was sick, we were able to get away to the beach house now and then,” she recalled. “I know people mean well, and they’re appreciated, but sometimes it’s nice to just get away from the phone.

“Basically, we just want to be able to help families who find themselves in the same situation,” Nantais concluded.

For more information, contact Mary Ellen Nantais at (302) 383-9282. The Justin W. Jennings Foundation is a tax-exempt nonprofit, and donations can be mailed to 111 Red Pine Circle, Newark, DE, 19711.