Family, friends, local leaders and neighbors gathered at Elbo Park July 11 for the dedication and grand opening of Jessie’s Park, a brightly colored playground standing tall among the stretches of verdant green grass, picnic areas and walking paths surrounding it.
For the occasion, softly purple balloons and tables filled with free plants and snacks also added a festive flourish.
Linda Falcone, Jessie’s mother, said special touches like lots of purple — Jessie’s favorite color — and decorative butterflies would delight the daughter she lost after a valiant, 13-year battle with leukemia in April, 2002. But it’s the sign proclaiming, “Do for others” at the park’s entrance that truly reflects Jessie’s soul and the guiding principle of her 26 years.
“Jessie loved to say, ‘It all comes down to this: Do for others,’” Falcone recalled. “She was such a giving and loving person.”
Despite a diagnosis of childhood leukemia at 13, Jessie graduated from Holy Cross High School in 1994 and Villanova University in 1998. Her mother said that the family “tried everything,” from bone marrow transplants to chemotherapy to clinical trials at the University of Michigan.
In fact, Jessie broke ground in 1996, when she agreed to test a new cancer therapy by taking B-43 Genistein, making her “the first person in the world to receive cancer drugs that only target cancer cells,” despite not knowing what the side effects would be.
“She’s in the medical journals for that, so she really did something for the good of mankind,” Falcone explained.
No matter where Jessie went, her mother said, a positive attitude and determination to help others helped her spread cheer even as she was fighting for her life. So it was only natural for Falcone and her husband, Frank, to pick up where their daughter left off, with Jessie’s Park being the newest living memorial in her honor.
The Parker Hughes Institute in Minnesota dedicated The Women’s Center Initiative program to Jessie, as her “courage to go through the treatment” allows the institute to help others fight cancer. At Holy Cross, the Jessica Falcone Memorial Foundation celebrates her life by granting scholarships to deserving students in need.
The memorial foundation has also partnered with The Ronald McDonald House Southern New Jersey to bring Jessica’s Cart with Heart to hospitals in the region. As the Falcones know all too well what it’s like to face extended hospital stays, the carts are stocked with items that bring comfort to those facing long hospital visits, like toys, books, snacks, juice boxes and — in keeping with bringing a little bit of Jessie’s personality to anything bearing her name — plenty of arts and crafts supplies.
“Jessie always wanted to go to art school: She was quite an artist,” Falcone noted. “She didn’t get it from me, but I encouraged her to pursue art because she just loved it.”
Throughout the playground dedication ceremony, Jessie’s flair for the artistic, fighting spirit and determination to “do for others” were among the elements of her personality that resonated through the morning’s speeches and the grand opening.
But it’s Jessie’s love of children that was on display, as the playground named for her welcomed its first official guest, Sofia DeBartelmeo, the daughter of Jessie’s twin sister Wendy.
With several local leaders in attendance for the playground’s grand opening, members of Mt. Laurel Township Council expressed pleasure at welcoming a new place for local youngsters to play.
“The township council is excited to have a wonderful new playground for children to visit, and to honor Jessie’s memory” said Mayor Irwin Edelson.
In the official decree council delivered to the Falcones, the mayor thanked them for their tireless efforts in bringing the playground to fruition.
”Frank and Linda raised $4,000 in donations and generously donated an additional $25,000 for Jessie’s Playground at Elbo Park,” Edelson said.
It is, after all, exactly what Jessie would have wanted.
“Jessie loved children,” Linda Falcone recalled. “She knew if she ever got better, because of all the chemotherapy, she would never be able to have children, so she found ways to take care of the younger children she met. That’s why her park is for the little ones.”