The James Bess Foundation, along with the Apopka fire and police departments, will come together Wednesday, May 24, during the first annual James Bess Foundation Basketball game fundraiser to honor the late James Bess, a Winter Garden native and West Orange High graduate.
“As a fire department, we have been able to see in the last year especially how much the community loves public service as a whole, how much they love the police department, the police department and how much they’ve come together,” Apopka firefighter Jarred Bess said. “We feel like there’s going to be a great outpouring of support for this event and an outpouring of support for public service in general from those that want to come to (the game) just support the firemen and police officers and to also support the foundation. So, I firmly believe that this is going to be a well-received event here in the city and just something that is uplifting.”
The James Bess Foundation is working with the Apopka departments, as well as with the Orlando Magic and the athletic department at Apopka High, to put together the game. Orlando Magic community ambassadors Nick Anderson and Bo Outlaw will serve as coaches for the game.
“We get to (celebrate) the first responders (and let them) have that competition, which they all like,” James Bess Foundation founder Mindy Bess said. “But then, we are also blessing them as well with an experience with former (Orlando) Magic players and stuff like that.”
The James Bess Foundation was founded by Mindy Bess — James Bess’ daughter — to honor her father and provide hope and the opportunity for final wishes to come true for adults aged 21 to 65 who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
James Bess was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in April 1998 at 38.
“We were living in Orlando at that time, and he had a desire,” she said. “He absolutely loved Garth Brooks. He would get lost in the music, watching his television programs. That was his happy space. So I was like, ‘You know what?’ I think it would be cool if I could arrange a meet-and-greet or concert tickets with him and with Garth. So, I tried, but the only program that was available was Make-A-Wish and their ages are 2 to 18 (years old). Once you are 19 or 20 or older, there’s really nothing. So, we weren’t able to fulfill that wish for him, and he died obviously not having it.”
James Bess died in 2002, four years after his initial diagnosis.
“It took a while for me to get to that place of starting the organization,” Mindy Bess said. “But, we started in Nashville, Tennessee, in August 2017, and our first wish was a riding lawnmower.”
Since that year, the nonprofit has been able to grant 29 wishes and currently is working on fulfilling two more — all through fundraising and donations.
“All of (the wishes) are special,” Mindy Bess said. “I think the one that really touched me the most was a gentleman, he was in his 50s. … He lived in Michigan. … He had never been on vacation. He had never been out of the region that he lived in, and he had never flown on an airplane. His wish was the see the ocean for the first time. … It was so hard organizing this trip with him, because he was so depressed and despondent and discouraged. … We ended up sending him and his brother from Michigan all the way down to Panama City Beach — all expenses paid — dolphin excursion, the whole nine yards, and it was really sweet. When he got back, I called to check in on him, and I couldn’t get him to stop talking. It was so special. … He told me that because of what I did, it really gave him a reason to keep fighting.”
SERVANT AT HEART
As someone who lived through the process of seeing the decline of a family member diagnosed with a terminal illness, Mindy Bess understands the process family members are going through. The reason she loves providing them with a final wish is simple: memories.
“That’s why we do what we do,” she said. “It’s all about making memories — not just for the client but for their families as well — so that when the family member does pass, they have those photos, they have those moments and those memories to kind of cling (to) as well.”
The need to serve others was instilled in Mindy and Jarred Bess by their father.
“My dad had a heart for the people,” Jarred Bess said. “But, he not only loved other people, but his love for his family is something that exuded from him very much. And that was the one thing that you knew about my father is how much he loved his family — whether it be his immediate family, my mother, my uncle and the rest of the family that live right here in Apopka.”
And those values — service, love, family and a love for life — are represented in the way the James Bess Foundation serves those who seek its help to find a beacon of light in a sea of uncertainty and desperation.
“I know what they are going through from a family member’s perspective,” Mindy Bess said. “I see the struggle and for adults. It’s like you can’t dream anymore, you can’t live anymore, you just have to focus on survival. And that can get draining, absolutely. So, when we come in and grant them a wish, we kind of reverse that, we kind of give (clients) a reason to continue pushing forward. We give them that hope. We give them that joy in a real desperate situation and with there family as well. So I think really is that love and that compassion and that service that really played into how we operate.”