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Just Keep Believing

Mark and Jessica Burrell.

Mark and Jessica Burrell.

By: Brittany Liantonio

Team Reeve All Stars: Jessica and Mark Burrell
Event: Softball tournament

Jessica Kress Burrell, 20, and her older brother, Mark Burrell, 34, are currently preparing for the fourth annual charity softball tournament that is held in upstate New York to benefit their foundation, Just Keep Believing (JKB).

The purpose of JKB is to help find a cure for spinal cord injuries and to assist in the continued rehabilitation and increased quality of life for Jessica. Fifty percent of the money raised is given to Jessica to help pay for her medical expenses and continued physical therapy while the other fifty percent is divided between three charities, one of them being the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The formation of the JKB Foundation
Jessica was very athletic in high school, playing softball and volleyball. All of this changed in February 2008, when Jessica, then 17-years-old, was in a car accident. She was in an induced coma for almost a month and is now living with a C6, C7 level spinal cord injury. Days after the accident, Jessica's friends came up with the saying "just keep believing" as a play off of Jessica's initials, and it stuck.

"It's something that I keep in the back of my head and it gets me through some of the hardest days," says Jessica.

Upon doing their research, Jessica's family thought it was best to move her to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia which is a Reeve Foundation NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) site. Mark took a leave of absence from teaching and coaching football to go to Atlanta with his parents and Jessica.

While in Atlanta, Mark's coaching coworkers organized the first annual JKB softball tournament in June 2008. The event was to raise money for Jessica's medical expenses and rehab.

"The only involvement I had with it was bringing Jessica back up to Owego, New York for the first event," says Mark. "It was the first time she was back home and around 4,000 people showed up for the event."

After the event, Jessica and her family returned to Shepherd Center for a few more months of therapy before returning home to Owego so Jessica could finish her senior year of high school with her friends. However, there were still some medical concerns since Jessica's accident was so recent. Because of this, Mark resigned from his job and became Jessica's aide. "I don't think I was her first choice," says Mark, "but she got stuck with me for her senior year."

"It was interesting," says Jessica about her senior year. "I definitely appreciate the sacrifice he made and I'll never be able to repay him for it, but as time went on, we definitely butted heads."

Jessica graduated third in her class and is currently attending Ithaca College where she is studying speech language pathology. She is expected to graduate in 2013 and plans on getting her master's degree.

Jessica Burrell with the JKB softball tournament’s 2010 high school winning team.

Jessica Burrell with the JKB softball tournament’s 2010 high school winning team.

JKB annual softball tournament
Although Mark had no real involvement in the first annual JKB softball tournament, he was instrumental in the following years. When he returned from Atlanta he took over the JKB Foundation. He doesn't do it alone though; Jessica and a board of about a dozen family and friends help plan all of the events that the JKB Foundation has, especially the softball tournament.

"We start planning at the end of January," says Mark. "We meet about every other week and most people put in between five to ten hours a week once we get going in February and March. It's kind of a part-time job for about 12 to 15 people for about three or four months to get prepared for the event."

All of the hard work pays off come June. Every year, just over 30 teams enter the tournament. With 10 to 15 players on each team, an average of 300 to 600 people play in the tournament every year. In order to raise money, each team must pay an entry fee or they may "join the cause" and sell a certain number of raffle tickets for a raffle that is also held annually after every tournament.

In efforts to raise even more money, there is also a concession stand open all weekend and a JKB stand where people can buy JKB memorabilia like t-shirts and wristbands. Different levels of sponsorship are also offered to allow corporations and businesses to support the JKB cause.

Although the softball tournament is a great success every year, Mark and the fellow JKB board members want to branch out.

The fourth annual softball tournament, held in 2011, will also include the first annual volleyball tournament to incorporate both of Jessica's favorite sports. However, since not everyone is sports lovers like the Burrell family, the JKB Foundation is in the brainstorming process to host other charity events that will suit everyone's interests.

"I think this year is going to be the first year we branch out to a couple of new activities," says Mark. "We're just trying to figure out which ones are the best ones to start with. We want to make sure that if we do it, we do it right because the softball tournament has been so successful the past four years."

Jessica Burrell with the JKB softball tournament’s 2010 co-ed winning team.

Jessica Burrell with the JKB softball tournament’s 2010 co-ed winning team.

Find significance in what you do
Not only does the softball tournament raise money for a great cause, but it is close to Jessica's heart.

"I think that if people are trying to plan some kind of event, they should try to incorporate something that is meaningful and really important to the person," says Jessica.

Mark agrees with Jessica that the key to a successful event is finding meaning in it. "There are probably other ways out there to generate as many dollars as what the softball tournament brings in and probably ways that we don't have to spend quite as much time planning and organizing," says Mark. "But for us, it's as much about raising the money as it is to represent Jessica and the whole idea of what Just Keep Believing means to all of us."

In the spirit of that, the JKB Foundation hosts a get-together every year after the tournament to thank everyone for their support. "We keep telling them every year that we can't promise them when it's going to happen, but when they find a cure, that all of them will be partially responsible for it," says Mark. "It's kind of a neat way to look at it."

For more information on JKB and upcoming events, please visit their Facebook page or contact Mark Burrell at markburrell@stny.rr.com to receive a 2011 JKB brochure.

Learn more
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Continue Christopher Reeve's LegacyPhoto by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders