It was an April day in 2012.
JJ Hendershot was at the base of Mt. Baldy, armed with two satellite phones and a walkie-talkie, fielding calls from dozens of volunteers who were guiding 400 climbers through Climb for Heroes.
Run by non-profit organization The Heroes Project, the fundraising event centered on climbing as a form of empowerment. The project’s mission is to encourage veterans and soldiers and remind them there is life after serious injury and trauma.
JJ heard the voice of her nine-year-old son Rhys crackle through her walkie-talkie. The plan was for Rhys and his father, JJ’s husband Mike, to walk to Camp One and turn around.
But Rhys, a boy who has battled medical challenges his life, hadn’t turned around at Camp One.
He was standing on the summit at an altitude of 10,069 feet.
“We had adults who didn’t make the summit and here’s my kid, with major medical issues, on the top,” JJ remembers. “I was so proud of him. It was the proudest moment of my life. Everybody started cheering – I mean, you could hear the mountain erupt.”
For JJ, Rhys’ accomplishment was symbolic – proof that mind trumps matter. It’s a concept she has come to understand well, both through dealing with Rhys’ condition and becoming involved with The Heroes Project.
“I asked Rhys how he got to the top and he said, ‘Every time I got to a different camp, a veteran would tell me I could do it, and I figured if they could, I could, too.’ And that’s what The Heroes Project is about,” JJ says. “It’s about overcoming your own obstacles, looking at people who have given life or limbs for our country and are overcoming their own obstacles. It’s not just about climbing mountains.
“When you see somebody overcoming obstacles you understand the power of the human spirit.”
JJ, a philanthropist and fitness instructor at Equinox in Palos Verdes, moved to Palos Verdes as a kid.
She and her husband Mike met on their first day of fifth grade at Lunada Bay Elementary, and after marrying they lived a newlywed life on the East Coast.
The birth of their son changed everything.
They knew Rhys was sick, but for three years they would not know what was causing it. Countless hospital visits and nine diagnoses later, they learned he had been born with a rare condition. (JJ and Mike prefer not to discuss it publicly; “We don’t want him branded as a sick kid. We tell Rhys that everyone has ‘something’ that could potentially ‘limit’ them, and we just know what Rhys’ ‘something’ is,” JJ says).
A social worker sat JJ and Mike down and informed them, matter-of-factly, that the stress of dealing with their child’s illness would destroy their marriage. Then a doctor told them a muscle biopsy – the only way to possibly determine what was making Rhys ill– could dramatically alter their little boy’s life. Besides, there was only a 66 percent chance it would result in a diagnosis.
“He needed research, and there was no funding for it,” JJ says. “I had this epiphany. I was like, I get it. This is what philanthropy is. Philanthropy is a bunch of people coming together, putting all their resources into one though to make the world a better place… We were in a situation where we needed philanthrophy. People were offering us stuff like help with our medical bills [or babysitting]. I was like, ‘No. What I need is somebody to do stem cell research.’”
The seed had been planted. After moving back to Palos Verdes to be nearer her family, JJ began to nurture a passion for philanthropy.
In 2009, she married two things she loved – fitness and philanthropy – and organized an event called PerseVerance. A three-hour cyclethon on stationary bikes at the Promenade on the Peninsula, the event raised $25,000 for the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Scott Rosen, chief operating officer of Equinox, picked up on JJ’s enthusiasm for philanthropic projects, and introduced her to Tim Medvetz, founder of The Heroes Project and survivor of a serious motorcycle accident that left him with life-altering injuries.
JJ knew she wanted Tim to meet Rhys. The two were immediately buddies; before long, Tim was accompanying Rhys on his monthly hospital visits and dropping by to play Monopoly.
As she learned more about The Heroes Project, JJ became increasingly inspired.
“Being involved with this foundation has just really helped all of us,” she says. “My perspective on life totally changed. Bad days aren’t so bad when you remember the power of the human spirit. These [soldiers and veterans] are people who have decided the human body can be pushed as far as the human mind wants to push it.”
In 2011, JJ organized another PerseVerance, but this time she gave the funds raised to The Heroes Project. She did the same the following year; the event became Cycle for Heroes, the venue was the Santa Monica Pier, and 180 cyclists participated. One third of them were Palos Verdes Equinox members, and all of them walked away moved by the vision of The Heroes Project.
“I am the daughter of a POW and soldiers have a special place in my heart,” participant Mary Voce-Underwood said. “To be able to raise money in order to give them a renewed purpose in their lives is just the very least we can do to say thank you for all they have done.”
This year’s event, held Sept. 11 on the Santa Monica Pier, raised more than $150,000 for The Heroes Project. Alongside some big-shot celebrities like Cher and 700 other participants, Rhys rode the full three hours.
It was the first time Lauren Goodman, one of JJ’s spin class students, had participated in a charitable cycle-thon.
“I think if I were left with one word to sum up how I feel about being a part of this event, it would be humbled,” she said. “I am humbled by the men and women that defend our country. I am humbled by the power of a great idea realized and I am always humbled by the personal character of JJ Hendershot.”
Today, seven years after Rhys was diagnosed, JJ and Mike are still married. Rhys is 10 and a fifth grader at Rancho Vista Elementary, and JJ has been named the senior manager of philanthropy for the West Coast at Equinox.
“The backwards side of all of this is that Rhys’ situation kind of saved us,” JJ says. “We were so success-driven – not money but success – and super competitive. But our perspective has changed and so have our lives.”