From Grief to Grace

In 2018, there was fierce competition in the Jessie Games sack race.

After Jessie Egan Smith passed away unexpectedly at age 23, her parents wanted to celebrate her life and help other children.

Matt and Clare Ansberry Smith of St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon found graces in the memories of their daughter.

“Jessie could light up a room with her wit and laughter, as well as her warm smile,” Matt said. “She went out of her way to make people feel loved and special, always remembering others at birthdays and holidays.”

“She had a big heart for young children in need,” Clare said.  “When Jessie was in eighth grade, she traveled to Immokalee, Florida, where she worked with migrant children.  Later, she raised money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and ran the marathon to help children with disabilities.”

Her spirit lives on through the Jessie Games charity fundraiser, recognizing her love of sports and her constant service work benefiting children. In the seven years since Jessie’s death, more than $200,000 has been collected for Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh.

Held each summer, The Jessie Games features dunk tanks, a water balloon toss and watermelon eating contests, along with sack races, face painting, jewelry making and bingo.

The proceeds support youth enrichment programs offered by Catholic Charities, including their Rollercoasters program which provides counseling for elementary school children struggling from trauma. It also helps fund summer lunches.

“The Jessie Games is one of our calendar’s most anticipated events,” said executive director Susan Rauscher. “It’s a special way to honor Jessie’s life and give children in southwestern Pennsylvania a chance to play. We’re enormously grateful to the entire Smith family for partnering with us, in our shared conviction that every single person is worthy of love, opportunity and a strong start in life.”

Last summer they found a new way to give back.

“When the pandemic hit, we couldn’t hold our event and put people at risk,” Matt said. “So instead, volunteers collected and distributed boxes of toys, games and school supplies to about 250 children.”

“We solicited donations like we always do, to keep the Jessie Games going for our donors and sponsors,” he said. “We raised more than $33,000 this year, bringing our donations to Catholic Charities to more than $200,000.”

“We hope that we can get back to our usual Jessie Games next summer,” Matt said.

Each year family and friends remember Jessie with a special prayer:

We thank God  . . . for with your love and grace we have come together to celebrate Jessie. As humans we tend to look to our elders for wisdom and knowledge. But you brought us Jessie and she taught us love, laughter, and that to live life is to celebrate in it. Her lessons continue as she brings us together in service of others. In honoring Jessie, please bless all who help and give hope to those in need.

Celebrating Jessie’s 2008 graduation from Seton LaSalle High School, (from left) dad Matt, mom Clare and brothers Pete and Eli.
Fun in the watermelon eating contest, from 2019.