These days, Jack Callahan, a busy 7-year-old first-grader at Johnson Elementary School, enjoys swimming and playing golf. His hearing aids are the only visual reminders of his chemotherapy journey to fight metastatic cancer.
Jack has been in remission since September. And his parents, Mike and Emily Callahan, are channeling their gratitude into making the path easier for the next families who find themselves plunged into a stressful stew of treatment, travel and worry.
After Jack was diagnosed with an extragonadal germ cell tumor in 2019, the Callahans needed a community. Friends stepped forward to raise money to help replace income lost when both parents had to leave their jobs and head to Philadelphia for their son’s advanced treatment.
Alec Lorenzoni and Lawren Magerfield organized a child-focused, family-friendly festival that combined fundraising with sheer fun. Thanks to Lorenzoni, Magerfeld and other devoted friends and volunteers, JackFest was established in 2019.
That first event lifted everyone’s spirits. “It was the perfect fall day, and just a celebration of families being together,” Emily Callahan said.
The beauty of the moment spurred the Callahans to make that feeling available to other parents. Although the Callahans had been uncomfortable with the idea of accepting financial help, they realized that they’d found an opportunity to give back — and pay forward.
“We, throughout the course of our journey, were the recipients of such kindness and generosity,” Emily Callahan said. The couple was determined “to find a way to express our love, support and gratitude. To this day, it was life-giving in moments we didn’t know we needed.”
JackFest’s most recent festivities, which resumed March 27 at Foxfield after a pandemic-prompted hiatus, included children’s running races, a costumed superhero dash, a Lego build challenge, an obstacle course challenge, a petting zoo and bouncy houses and slides.
Admission to JackFest for children and families is free. Registration fees for specific competitive JackFest events help raise money for Ronald McDonald House of Charlottesville, which gives families a home away from home while their children are seeking treatment, and the pediatric oncology program at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, where the funds will help expand pediatric immunotherapy and stem cell transplant programs so more patients and families can find specialized care without traveling so far.
Life as the Callahans knew it changed abruptly in February 2019, when their energetic 3-year-old son became ill.
“We thought he had some kind of infection,” Mike Callahan said. “We had no idea he’d have cancer. We didn’t know what was happening.”
An MRI revealed a grapefruit-sized tumor in Jack’s pelvis. A constellation of lesions appeared in his lungs. Cancer was not only present, but spreading.
“Emily stayed calm and asked questions,” Mike Callahan said. “I fell apart. It’s extremely difficult to get that news.”
Together, they dug deep for resilience to navigate a confusing new world, and to stay strong for their son.
“Everyone said, ‘You’re so strong,’” Mike Callahan said. “Everyone would do it. It’s your kid.”
Jack received four rounds of chemotherapy at UVa Children’s, but he needed more extensive treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“He spent 117 nights in the hospital,” Mike Callahan said. “Emily and I had to leave work and go to Philadelphia.”
The family ended up spending nine months there.
“His disease was not responding the way they wanted it to,” Emily Callahan said. “We were not able to come home.”
The Callahans soon discovered how rich they were in terms of friendships. The Lorenzoni family “raised funds for us,” Mike Callahan said. “Thank God we had them in our lives.”
Mike Callahan called the inaugural JackFest event “a smash hit.” As families laughed and played together, the Callahans noticed that they weren’t alone. A new community emerged around them of parents who understood what a child’s cancer journey was like, and the value of fun and togetherness to fight the toll it can take on families.
The community at large needed to be more aware of pediatric cancer and its impact on families, and those families needed a dose of hope and some time to hop off the treadmill of treatment schedules, change and stress. The Callahans resolved to transform a generous expression of emergency support into an ongoing event to raise funds for others.
“The need in the community was so great,” Mike Callahan said. “It wasn’t just us. We saw a niche here. We could do kids’ races with activities around them and raise money for kids’ causes. We saw a demand. A need.”
“There came a point during the [JackFest] event this spring that I thought, ‘We did it. People are more aware of pediatric cancer,’” Emily Callahan said. “We wanted to be there and be known.”
Helping Ronald McDonald House was an easy choice for a family grateful for its hospitality.
“It’s all about supporting the whole family,” Mike Callahan said. “It’s not just lodging. We feel a personal connection to it. We said, ‘Let’s extend a rope to the next families.’”
Greater visibility for pediatric cancer was a valuable component of the JackFest experience. These days, the Callahans are the ones offering help and encouragement to other families.
“I connect with a lot of families now — even a family in Paris,” Emily Callahan said.
The Callahans did not realize right away that they are giving people another gift — one that’s difficult to describe, but easy to feel. When one person learns how to receive help from others, caring people are changed by finding opportunities to make a difference, and a community is built one generous gesture at a time.
“Accept the help,” Emily Callahan said. “Don’t feel guilty about it. You’ll find a way to pay it back. If not, you’ll find a way to pay it forward.”
Her advice to people who feel motivated to reach out and help someone in need points to the Lorenzoni family’s example of fighting fear with fun.
“Don’t ask what somebody needs. Just do something,” Emily Callahan said.
Learn more about JackFest at jackfest.net.
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