WESTFIELD, NJ - When Westfield native Paul Jackson died in 2009, he left behind a legacy of compassion.

Paul knew firsthand how it felt to suddenly sink into devastation due to life-changing illness, then to be pulled up by helping hands. In 1989, at age 28, the gifted athlete and Little League coach underwent surgery to remove an intramedullary spinal cord tumor that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Paul hoped to improve his health via a strenuous, specialized rehabilitation program that insurance didn’t cover, so friends and members of the community began to organize local events to raise money. It was the beginning of the Paul Jackson Fund.

Paul never walked again, but when his health stabilized and he no longer needed to be the recipient of the fund’s money, he began to use the fund to reach out to other individuals and families facing financial crisis due to long-term illness or disability. For 18 years, he brought his van to their homes, invited them inside and heard their stories. The fund became a safety net, dispensing more than $1 million in grants to several hundred individuals, improving their lives and saving them from despair.

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When his illness returned, “He fought like heck to live,” said his sister Mary Jackson, who is now president of the fund. She and Paul grew up in Westfield, two of eight children. She now honors her brother’s wish that the fund continue to help those in need. “He passed away and, little by little, we learned how to do this without the benefit of him here to show us how,” she said.

Mary Jackson hired Mary Doherty as director of development. The pair work from their office on Elmer Street, still visiting applicants throughout the tri-state area (though mostly in New Jersey) and making personal connections with each of them, just as Paul did, now 20 years after he began. “We make a good team,” said Mary Jackson. “We’re very committed to providing assistance to those who have nowhere else to turn.”

The two have seen first-hand again and again how easy it is for a physical ailment to ruin a family’s finances. “Someone gets sick and they lose their job. They lose their insurance. Even with insurance, it doesn’t cover everything. It doesn’t cover the loss of income,” Mary Jackson explained. “People just find themselves in very, very difficult situations.”

“There are added expenses,” said Mary Doherty. “Sometimes treatment may be out of state. The cost of gas, the cost of food, if someone needs to stay the night—a medical crisis can drain your finances quickly.”

The team has countless stories to tell, such as that of 12-year-old Daniel, whose family received Paul’s van, refitted especially for him. There’s Tyler, a young victim of shaken-baby syndrome to whom the fund gave a special communication device so that he could connect with others. Some families need ramps and wheelchair lifts added to their homes. Some need food when all of their money has gone to hospital bills. Others need the electricity turned back on.

“The stories are all of different illnesses, difference circumstances,” said Jackson. “The fund really changes their lives. It gives them hope. They get something that makes their lives easier and more manageable. We find out what will make a difference in their life, what they struggle with. To say ‘yes,’ there’s nothing else like it for them or for us.”

Once, a dying woman asked the fund to pay for her motel room so that she didn’t have to spend her last months on the street. “The relief that you could see on her face, that she no longer had to worry about a roof over her head …” Jackson explained. “This fills a void that, unfortunately, exists for lots of people.”

Currently, the fund is keeping up with demand. “There’s a steady, manageable stream of people calling us,” said Jackson. Many applicants find the Paul Jackson Fund by dialing 211 or through 211.org.

But the fund does face financial hurdles. Not everyone who started with Paul continued to volunteer after his death, and the annual golf tournament that was once a major source of revenue was cancelled. “Now we’re faced with coming up with different ideas to raise money,” said Jackson.

Since Paul’s passing, a 5K walk/run is held each year, and this October will mark the fund’s third. They are hoping to get more business sponsorships to help cover the cost of the event so that individual donations may go straight to the fund. Jackson and Doherty also encourage individuals and organizations to come up with their own fundraising ideas. (They’ve been impressed by several children who asked their friends to donate to the fund in honor of their birthdays.)

Currently, they are raising money by selling Somerset Patriots tickets, with $5 from each $10 ticket going to the fund. To order, email dohertypjf@gmail.com. On June 4, 11 and 18 from 2 pm to 5 pm the fund will collect girl’s special occasion dresses at its office at 223 Elmer Street in Westfield, with a sale to be hosted in early 2013 and all money raised going to the fund. Direct donations to the fund can be made any time via First Giving.

To receive updates from The Paul Jackson Fund, “like” their Facebook page.