|Gulf Shores Super Slugger tournament to strike out childhood cancer|
September 5, 2013, Gulf Shores, AL. – The blue baseball cap slipped over his eyes as he stepped up to the cardboard box smashed down to form the home plate. Swinging the wooden bat just the right size for his 5-year-old frame, Jensen Byrd took off running, rounding the bases and passing the family members and friends he had named after characters from his favorite baseball video game. It was a backyard game on a summer afternoon in Gulf Shores, Ala. He was not going to let the morphine tube coming out of what was intended to be his Kindergarten backpack slow him down.
Jensen’s parents, Lynn and Melissa, and his 10-year-old sister Jayden hold onto this memory of the last baseball game he played shortly before he passed away on Aug. 24, 2010. Jensen’s competitive spirit during the game gives just a glimpse of the kind of hope and perseverance he demonstrated during the course of his 3-year battle with neuroblastoma, one of the most common cancers found in children.
Now almost three years later, the approach of September means much more to the Byrd family than the majority of Americans who have never experienced the pain of watching a child fight a long, ugly battle for life – September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
The Byrd family is now striving to honor Jensen’s memory by taking action to fight the disease claiming the lives of the most children in the United States each year through Jensen’s Heart of Gold Foundation, one of the few nonprofits drawing support for childhood cancer research and victims. The foundation strives not only to raise funds to support research and help families with children battling cancer but also to be a part of a larger movement to raise awareness of childhood cancer.
“People know about pink, but they don’t know why gold is important,” Melissa said. The gold ribbon is the symbol for childhood cancer awareness. Melissa hopes to see the same kind of awareness and funding rallied for breast cancer directed to the fight against childhood cancer.
Jensen’s baseball game served as the inspiration for the foundation’s main fundraiser, the Super Slugger Co-ed Softball Tournament, which will take place for the third year on Saturday, Sept. 7 at the Gulf Shores Sportsplex.
“It was that last display of courage and drive that inspired this event. He never gave up, and he lived his life wholeheartedly. He taught us all so much in five short years, and I can only hope that I will continue to learn from him and make him proud,” Melissa wrote in one of nearly 1,000 entries on Jensen’s page on Caring Bridge, a site designed to connect family and friends when a loved one experiences a health event.
From the first pitch thrown by a local child in remission from cancer to the teams named after characters from Mario Super Sluggers, the video game that Jensen loved, the softball tournament is a celebration of life and a unified effort to rally support for children and families in the heat of the battle against cancer.
Last year the foundation raised nearly $9,500 at the tournament, and they hope to see that number increase. This year most of the funds raised will go to local families in need who have a child or children stricken with cancer.
“We may not raise huge amounts of money, but after being in that situation, I know that every little bit helps. I know what our family went through,” Melissa said. The foundation also plans to begin offering a scholarship in Jensen’s name to a local graduating high school senior planning pursuing a career in the medical field.
Melissa said there are several ways that people can be involved with the efforts of Jensen’s Heart of Gold Foundation. First, they can pull together a softball team for the Super Slugger Co-ed Softball Tournament, which is a Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Sports Commission-supported event on Sept. 7 or for the Dodging Childhood Cancer Dodgeball event on Sept. 21.
In order for the tournament to be carried out with 100 percent of the funds raised directed to childhood cancer research and children with cancer, there is a need for sponsors and many volunteers. Also, donations are always welcome on the foundation’s website.
For more information about the softball tournament and how to get involved, visit www.gulfshoresorangebeachsports.com. To make a donation and read more about Jensen and the Byrd family’s story, go to www.jensonsheartofgold.com.