“We all need a break,” says Jennifer Matwijec, founder of Waves of Grace. The nonprofit organization, based in Brentwood, Tenn., speaks to this sentiment, sending cancer warriors and their loved ones on beach vacations to make sure they’re getting the rest and relaxation they need.
“For my family, the beach was our break,” shares Matwijec. “My parents owned a condo in Orange Beach, Ala. Whenever school was out, we would head to The Enclave. My parents generously opened it up to my sisters and me whenever we could get time off work and when we started our own families and needed a vacation with the kids. Standing there, my problems back home felt small. The ocean is so big and overwhelmingly beautiful. It truly provided peace unlike anything else in my life. I’m just so grateful to my parents [that] I got to experience that whenever I needed it.”
Matwijec wanted to take this gift and give it to families in need of a boost while going through cancer treatment. There’s an even more personal reason, too—Matwijec’s mother passed from stage IV gastric cancer.
“I saw firsthand how the beach affected a cancer patient. I saw my mom at her doctor visits, tired and asking when she could travel to the beach next. She would get the all-clear and head south. I saw her walking along the water, picking up shells, looking and feeling very much alive despite her stage IV gastric cancer diagnosis. Each time, she would return refreshed, renewed and ready to face whatever treatment or scans or clinical trials were next,” says Matwijec.
“I feel blessed to have been able to be a small part of their story to provide a little peace in the midst of cancer.”
Though most websites told Matwijec that her mother would only live for six–nine months, she lived for 14 months after her diagnosis. Matwijec attributes this to the rest and relaxation her mother felt as she spent time with her family and on the beach. Little did her mother know that her love for the beach would turn into a daughter’s mission to help many families for years after.
Waves of Grace has helped fund week-long beach trips for 74 families since its first trip in December 2014. For some families, it’s their last treasured moment together.
“Sometimes I do have to say goodbye to patients I’ve worked with,” says Matwijec. “Sometimes it’s their last vacation with their loved ones. And [it’s] really hard to go to that place again with families. I feel their loss. I feel my mom’s loss all over again. I feel the unfairness of this disease. I feel blessed to have been able to be a small part of their story to provide a little peace in the midst of cancer.”
For other families, however, the beach vacation Waves of Grace provides them with is just a chapter in a long and beautiful life. “We get to see them finish school, start a business, start their own nonprofits, have more children, get married and continue living life to the fullest,” Matwijec says. “No matter what happens after their beach vacation, every family has written [to] us about how much they enjoyed their week together. They keep in touch. That is such a gift back to me that I wasn’t expecting.”
To find and fund the perfect beach spot for these families, Waves of Grace has property partners along the Gulf Coast from Gulf Shores, Ala. to St. George Island, Fla., as well as a partner in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Due to cost of travel, Waves of Grace usually focuses on warriors in the southeastern U.S., but it occasionally gets to help families in other parts of the country.
One goal to expand its reach that Waves of Grace has had from the beginning is to eventually remodel or build a beach house completely accessible to accommodate any family, without restriction. “We want it on the beach, [with an] elevator, beach ramp, beach wheelchair—all to make the family as comfortable and relaxed as possible,” says Matwijec. “There are families fighting cancer that also have family members with [disabilities] that we hope to accommodate so everyone can enjoy their time together.”
For more information, visit waves-of-grace.org.