By Willow Welter
Photos by Willow Welter and Courtesy of the Garrens   |   Posted: September 30, 2014



  |   Posted: September 30, 2014


Jessie Garren at her uncle's home in Bedford, N.Y., in between cancer treatments.

When the children of Villa Gonzalez drink from bottles bearing the name Jessie Garren Water, they have never met Jessie personally. But they know that the inexpensive water is safe to drink, unlike the city water, which is often contaminated with sewage. That’s what would have mattered to Jessie, and it’s what matters to her family.

A fund called Jessie’s Well paid for a water-purification system in the Dominican town of Villa Gonzalez, a few blocks away from one of Compassion’s church partners. The church’s pastor, Jorge Calderon, says the town’s lack of safe water is a symptom of its poverty. While the country’s poverty rate has declined over the past decade, the opposite is true in Villa Gonzalez. To avoid the diarrheal diseases that kill 12,000 kids under age 5 each year in Latin America and the Caribbean, families in Villa Gonzalez pay about 30 Dominican pesos for a 5-gallon jug of drinking water. That’s less than U.S.$1, but the typical family in the area goes through three or four jugs per week and earns the equivalent of only $3-$4 a day.

Relief for the community began this year, thanks to Jessie, the North Carolina girl whose 17 years on earth inspired so many around her.

“We are very grateful that a family that did not know us decided to come and support and assist our community,” Pastor Jorge says. “Not everyone would be capable of going through an adversity of this nature — losing a daughter — and turning it into an opportunity of impacting others.”


Sponsored children greet Kit and Marilyn Garren in front of the church and Compassion center in Villa Gonzalez, Dominican Republic, blocks away from the new water-purification center.

Kit and Marilyn Garren don’t tell people their daughter died — they say Jessie “went home.” About two years before her death, Jessie developed intense pain in her thigh that moved to her shoulder. While trying to find the source of the inflammation in 2007, doctors discovered cancer in Jessie’s lung, shoulder, hips and spine. The then-15-year-old had epithelioid hemangioendothelioma — a rare tumor that may occur in the lining of the blood vessels and can be cancerous, as it was for Jessie.

Over the next year and a half, Jessie was in and out of hospitals for treatment, including chemotherapy. Family and friends who visited her in the hospital couldn’t believe how calm the teen with cancer acted.

“Jessie just had the light of Christ in her,” Marilyn says.

That light wasn’t contained to the hospital — between intensive rounds of chemotherapy, Jessie experienced periods of strength that allowed her to be home with her parents and brother, Robert. During 2007, she performed in a school play, went to prom, and even traveled to Florida for the BigStuf Christian youth conference. Jessie hoped to be involved with her youth group’s annual mission trip to serve the community of Santiago, Dominican Republic, in April 2008. Jessie’s doctor hesitantly gave the green light for her to go, but a dangerous drop in her white blood cells before the trip reversed that decision.

On April 26, 2008, Jessie wrote in her online journal: As many of you know, I was not able to go on my youth group’s mission trip to the Dominican Republic. At first I was pretty upset. I had so looked forward to going on the trip and doing work for God. … But, as always, God has a plan for everything! We were able to scholarship the money I had raised to our church to help kids who had gone on the mission trip but hadn’t been able to raise all of the money.

Jessie took her final breath on Sept. 8, 2008, after developing kidney failure related to the cancer.

“Jessie’s job was over. She had an assignment, carried it out beautifully,” says Marilyn.

To honor Jessie’s life, her parents and her Uncle Rob set up a fund and prayed for guidance on how to use the money that family and friends donated over the next few years. The Garrens wanted to fulfill their daughter’s desire to serve children in the Dominican Republic, and they learned through a friend at church how Compassion helps get safe water to kids around the world.


Kit and Marilyn try out the bottling process at the water-purification center opened in their daughter’s honor. Continuing the family’s efforts to help people living in poverty, Kit plans to cycle across the U.S. next year raising money and awareness for the cause.

After accompanying Compassion to the Dominican Republic and meeting Pastor Jorge and his wife, the Garrens knew they’d found the right place. Jessie’s water-purification center was dedicated March 1, 2014, in Villa Gonzalez. The church gives the water to sponsored children and sells it to the rest of the community for half of what most vendors charge. Sales ensure that the church can maintain and operate the water-purification center.

Seeing the water system in operation gave Kit a glimpse into God’s love. “Only God can create what the world would call a tragedy,” he says, “and turn it around and make it joyful and full of hope.”

Watch a video of Jessie’s life and legacy.