After her own wedding was called off this past spring, oncology nurse Jessica Leja went on a mission to gift her $1,800 Stella York gown to someone in need.
Sure, she could have sold the lacy white and ivory dress but because she has devoted her life to caring for cancer patients, her father among them, she decided to turn a sad situation into something uplifting for someone else. She decided to donate it to an engaged cancer patient or survivor.
"My heroes are cancer patients: the fighters, the survivors and the taken," she said. "The admiration I have for them is beyond words.
"It would really mean a whole lot to me to be able to find someone" associated with cancer to give this gown to, she said then.
The 30-year-old Lincoln-Way Central and Joliet Junior College graduate who works at DuPage Medical Group in Tinley Park, Illinois took to social media and reached out to the Chicago Tribune to help get the word out.
Since our story ran June 18, Leja, who lives in New Lenox, Illinois, has received hundreds of emails from people interested in taking her up on her offer. She's also heard from vendors who'd like to sweeten the deal with accessories, salon visits and a complimentary tuxedo for the groom.
Although she's known from the start who the recipient should be, Leja spent the summer reading emails and reaching out to inquirers. On Aug. 19, she Skyped with Toni Roberts, a cancer patient in Lebanon, to tell her she'd been selected to receive the gown, and whatever else ends up coming with it.
Leja received Roberts' email the same day the story ran.
"I remember reading it and, to be honest, I knew right away this is my girl. Then I said I have to wait and give others a chance," Leja said.
Roberts, a 31-year-old mother of one who works for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, told Leja about her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and how she tries to be a voice of compassion and positivity to others undergoing treatment.
That struck a chord with Leja.
"Toni sent me pictures, told me her story. I got goosebumps. I was crying," Leja said. "We're so similar, it's crazy."
Leja said she admires Roberts' spirit and the compassion she has for the other cancer patients.
"She reaches out to them; she's supportive," Leja said. "She's all about helping others and inspiring them."
Roberts has endured six rounds of chemotherapy and a year of herceptin therapy. She has two maintenance infusions and one surgery left to go.
Although treatment has been tough, Roberts said she has been able to continue her job working with state organizations that help adults with disabilities. In addition to caring for her 8-year-old son, she has been training to participate in the same 5K she took part in after she was diagnosed. Sponsored by Sherry's Run, an organization that offers assistance to families affected by cancer in her community, the run will be held Sept. 8.
Roberts became engaged to Daniel Johnson a month before Leja's story ran. The couple has set their sights on Feb. 20, 2019.
Roberts said she reached out to Leja after an infusion center nurse tagged her in a post with the story. Several friends did the same.
"I thought it was so sweet that Jessica could take an unfortunate situation (like a wedding being canceled) and turn it around and make it happy for someone else," Roberts said.
Via Skype, Leja revealed her decision to give the dress to Roberts through a poem she'd written.
"Each and every word,
Of your story touched my heart,
Tears ran down my face,
I knew right from the start.
At 30 years young,
Cancer snuck right in,
But nothing can stop you,
This fight you will win ... "
The verse moved Roberts to tears. "I don't think I cried that much when I got engaged," she said.
Leja plans to deliver the dress sometime next month.
In the meantime, offers to sweeten the deal keep coming in. Bella Sposa, in Tinley Park, has offered to "complete the look" with veil and jewelry, she said.
"I've been getting emails from salons, makeup artists, people who want to donate services. One person said they collected $128 and wants to donate it toward dress alterations," Leja said. "It's just amazing."
Roberts said the dress donation represents more than a financial savings. She and Leja have bonded over the experience.
"She knows what I'm going through. She went through it with her father and her patients on a daily basis," Roberts said.
When she wears the gown on her special day, it will be akin to be wrapped in a giant hug from someone who understands, she said.
"And of course the dress is gorgeous," she said, "just like Jessica is gorgeous."
— Donna Viceroy, Chicago Tribune