A heart-wrenching diagnosis leads a family to start a nonprofit to help those in need.
by Michelle Boudin
Jane Harrell always knew she’d change the world. The 17-year-old just didn’t realize her impact would be felt long after she was gone.
“Our daughter was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in March 2021,” says her father, Mike Harrell. The captain of her lacrosse and tennis teams — and a beloved big sister to Sam, Max and Piper — was given just months to live.
“It was devastating,” Mike says. “You can’t even describe it. Not being able to help your kid is crushing — it’s the worst feeling.”
“Five months from diagnosis to death,” recalls her mom, Jane Harrell, of her namesake daughter. “It was a heck of a hard journey for her. She was more concerned about us and the family, but she gradually went blind, had a catheter, her bowel and bladder quit working … but somehow, she kept us laughing.”
The Harrells spent those five months soaking up every second with their oldest child, and she spent that precious time making plans to be sure she left her mark. “It was a five-month journey to get her to heaven,” her mother explains. “It was not about believing a miracle couldn’t happen, but also being realistic.”
The journey started when the younger Jane came home from boarding school for spring break and admitted to her mom, an internal medicine doctor at H3 Healthcare, that she hadn’t been feeling like herself in recent months. Her vision was off, and she was dizzy and sometimes fell. Having Googled her symptoms, the teen was concerned she had a brain tumor and worried about the effect that would have on her family, so she kept it to herself.
Her mom immediately took her for an MRI. Once the scan confirmed the devastating diagnosis, doctors advised the family to go home and be together for what little time they had left.
“Jane’s Fund started that night,” her mother remembers. “She came and got on the bed with Mike and me, and she looked at me and said, ‘Why do you think this is happening to me?’ I said, ‘You’re the brightest light I’ve ever known. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know good is going to come of this.’ And she said, ‘I thought I was going to grow up and change the world.’ And I said, ‘Somehow, you will.’”
From an early age, the younger Jane was always giving back. She filled backpacks with supplies for kids in need, helped out at the men’s shelter and kept bags full of toiletries in the car to give to people on the street. With that giving spirit in mind, in early 2022 the family formally launched Jane’s Fund, a nonprofit that works with local social workers, schools and health care professionals to identify families in need and then quietly fulfill those needs. They quickly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We work with children and families who are struggling and in pain and give them financial support,” Jane says. “We got a call that a kid was dying of cancer, and the family has hourly jobs they can’t afford to miss so they can’t spend time at the hospital. So we paid off their mortgage.” They’ve done that a few times, often anonymously.
“It’s one of the worst things you can ever go through,” Mike adds. “We were fortunate to have supportive coworkers and flexible jobs and be able to spend that last five months together as a family. A lot of people are not in that situation. There’s a lot of financial burden that comes with this … we don’t want anybody to ever have to worry about paying a mortgage.
“We can’t cure the child, but there’s hopefully a little bit of hope for that family that we’re giving to them,” Mike adds.
Helping families facing pediatric cancer is one of five core focus areas for Jane’s Fund, all topics that mattered to Jane. Sports, dental care, education and camps are the others. They have worked with local schools to send kids to summer camp, and made sure students had laptops to take to college.
So far, they’ve completed 35 projects. Jane herself had a hand in one before she died, helping a hospital worker who was insecure about his smile get braces. Since then, Jane’s Fund has helped other kids in need of dental work, paying to help reconstruct kids’ smiles.
“We’re just starting, but our hope would be that we help as many families as we can and continue to do what Jane would have wanted us to,” her father says. “Little Jane always dreamed about having a positive impact, and through this nonprofit, hopefully we’re able to serve the purpose she wanted and let her spirit live on through others.” SP
To learn more about Jane’s Fund, visit shinelikejane.org.
Lead Photo: Jane and Mike Harrell with their children, Max, Sam, Jane and Piper