By Melanie LeCroy
In 2007, Lynn and Melissa Byrd’s world changed forever when their young son Jensen’s tummy ache was diagnosed as stage 4
The Byrd family was told Neuroblastoma was a rare form of cancer, but shortly after arriving at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, they realized it wasn’t. A consult visit to this leading research center soon turned to a nine-month stay at the Ronald McDonald house.
Jensen fought hard for three years, but his cancer was in the soft tissue, which makes it harder to treat, and it spread very quickly.
“He was home in remission and scheduled for scans three months later, and the day before we were to fly back to New York, we wound up at Sacred Heart. They said there was nothing they could do for him,” Byrd said, fighting back tears.
“We took him home in 2010 with hospice when Jensen was 5-years-old. He loved Super Mario and wore his Luigi costume all the time. Jensen wanted to go in the backyard and play Super Mario baseball. He named us all characters. It was one of the last active memories we had with him. He died shortly after,” Byrd said.
The next year, to relive that memory, Melissa threw together a softball tournament. What she believed would be maybe five teams turned into 20 teams raising $8,000.
“That is where it all was born. We started the non-profit paperwork shortly after. This year we have 55 teams registered and a waitlist of 12 teams we couldn’t fit in. All 55 teams will have a Super Mario character name and jersey colors based on that character,” she said. “We usually incorporate one of our Jensen’s Heart of Gold children to throw out the first pitch. This year it’s a teenager, Keaton Krebs, who won his battle against leukemia. He is also one of our scholarship recipients this past year.”
The Jensen Daniel Byrd Memorial Scholarship Fund offers a graduating senior at Gulf Shores High School pursuing a degree in medicine a financial award. Every medical personnel that encounter a cancer patient play a vital role in treatment.
Since 2012, Jensen’s Heart of Gold Foundation has been able to award financial assistance to 100 percent of its hardship applicants. Also, they were able to provide other local children currently battling cancer a special gift through the Golden Heart Christmas Outreach Program. Through the emergency relief fund, they were able to provide immediate necessities to those in dire need.
Families can use the funds for whatever they need, whether it’s to pay bills and travel expenses or take their family on vacation.
“One of our missions is to help families make memories,” Byrd said.
“This year will mark the ninth year for our Super Slugger Softball tournament. I am amazed at what it has turned into. It’s overwhelming,” Byrd said, getting a little emotional. “There have been times when I have thought, how long can I do this, but it’s humbling and exciting. What makes me the happiest, these teams know why they are there and know Jensen’s story. That is what I worried about in growing it, but people want the jerseys, and they know why we are doing this,” Byrd said, smiling.
Last year the Super Slugger softball tournament raised almost $70,000. In 2018, between the Alabama and Florida affiliates, Jensen’s Golden Heart Foundation raised $ 128,000.
The Ninth Annual Super Slugger Softball tournament will take place Sept. 6-8 at Gulf Shores Sportsplex. Games will start at 6 p.m. Friday with a home run derby beginning at 7 p.m. On Saturday games will start at 8 a.m. with Courtney Stewart of Elberta High school singing the national anthem and Keaton Krebs throwing out the first pitch.
If you would like to learn more about Jensen’s Heart of Gold Foundation, please check out the website http://www.jensensheartofgold.com/. On the website, you can also find the Hardship Assistance program information and application.