Christmas Act of Kindness
Jason Bland was the athletic trainer at Airline High School when he lost his battle with cancer. In the short time he worked at the school, Jason earned a well-deserved reputation as a true professional and great guy. So, it was important for the coaches and baseball team members to come to the rescue when the Bland family needed help putting up their Christmas lights. Even though Jason passed away several years ago, the team still decorates the Bland home every year.Like most of his teammates, Cameron Taylor never met Jason Bland. But he’s heard all the stories about Jason, who served as the athletic trainer at Airline High School in Bossier City. Stories about Jason’s ability to connect with his student-athletes. Stories about Jason’s incredible work ethic. Stories about Jason’s expertise and positive attitude. Stories about Jason’s courageous battle with head and neck cancer. A battle Jason would eventually lose.
And, like his teammates, Cameron, leads a busy life. He spends most of his time concentrating on his academic success and preparing for a productive year as centerfielder for the Vikings’ baseball team.
“They (the Blands) went through something very traumatic and it’s nice to let people know you are always there to support them.”
But no matter how busy, Cameron and his teammates, as well as the Airline coaches, always have time to help Jason’s wife, Jennifer, and his two daughters, Caroline and Hannah. Especially around Christmas.
That’s when the coaches and senior and junior baseball players descend on the Bland residence en masse to help string outside Christmas lights. It’s become a tradition; a tradition that honors Jason’s legacy, as well as a tradition that reinforces the belief that it’s important to give back.
“They (the Blands) went through something very traumatic and it’s nice to let people know you are always there to support them,” Cameron said. “I’m looking forward to going back this year. Last year, I did the ground lights. This year, I hope to be promoted to putting up the lights in the trees.”
The Airline crew first helped with the Christmas lights when Jason was in the hospital. That was November 2009. Jason passed away in June of 2010. So, the week of Thanksgiving of that year, the Airline team and coaches came back to string the lights again.
But something even greater happened. It’s now become a tradition for the Airline baseball juniors and seniors, along with the coaches and some dads, to visit the Bland household every year and decorate the home and yard with the white lights Jason loved so much.
Most of us can understand helping Jennifer and her daughters when Jason was sick. And we certainly understand coming back after Jason’s death. But the fact that they continue to come back year after year to honor Jason and his family says so much about the impact an act of kindness can have in a community. It reminds us that hope is alive and well and more good than bad happens in our world.
To say that Jennifer is grateful would be an understatement.
“It means so much to my girls and myself.”
The stars first aligned for Jennifer and Jason at Henderson State University, a small liberal arts college in Arkadelphia, Ark. He was there on a football scholarship. At one time, Jason owned the field goal record at Byrd High School in Shreveport –– 48 yards. In fact, it was the only field goal he kicked because he broke his leg the next week.
At Henderson, Jason was a math major with a minor in kinesiology. Jennifer was studying communications and mass media. They met through mutual friends and began to hang out together. They were friends for a year before they began to date in December of 1992. It was just a natural progression for both Jennifer and Jason.
“I was in Alpha Sigma Tau sorority and needed a date for the winter fest ball,” Jennifer said. “I asked Jason if he would go with me.”
In December of 1996, Jason proposed and they were married January 1997. Caroline came along in 2000 and Hannah was born in 2004.
Jason began his career as an athletic trainer in Nacogdoches, Texas, then moved to Texarkana when he and Jennifer married. It wasn’t long before Jason received a call from the Willis-Knighton Health System, and the Blands moved to Shreveport-Bossier City. Jason was hired to get the Willis-Knighton athletic training program off the ground.
The math degree that Jason earned would add up to a teaching position at Airline High School. He also was their athletic trainer. “Jason loved being with the kids,” Jennifer said. “And the kids loved him, too. He was good at his job.”
In 2006, Jason decided he wanted to pass along the career that meant so much to him. He began to teach athletic training at the Bossier Parish Technical School. His classes quickly became among the most popular at the school.
Life was good for the Blands. “We had one of those fairytale marriages,” Jennifer said. “We didn’t argue; we just had such a great friendship. He was a good partner, husband, dad. A good Christian man. Jason and I said we were living our golden years at 36 years of age.”
Faith played an integral part in every aspect of life for Jennifer and Jason. They joined University Church of Christ in Shreveport and their church family became a part of their daily lives.
“Jason was not only a member of our church, but a friend,” said minister Jerry Hodge, picking up a photo of when he baptized Jason. “Jennifer and Jason were one of our young couples that got involved, and that is very important. Jennifer was one of the best laywomen’s ministers we have ever had. They also were very active in their Sunday morning bible class.”
In the summer of 2008, Jason noticed an unusual growth on his tongue and finally had it checked out the next January. A biopsy determined it was cancer and Jason quickly came under the care of Dr. Cherie-Ann Nathan, a world-class ENT head and neck surgeon and professor from LSU Health Shreveport.
“Jason was a charismatic, kind, gentle person,” Dr. Nathan said. “He never gave up. He was a fighter with a good attitude. He actually did a fundraiser for head and neck cancer when things weren’t going well. He wanted to help other people.”
Jason had a large tumor and surgery was the best option. Surgery was a success, even though Dr. Nathan had to remove part of Jason’s tongue. Because Jason was so young, doctors decided to postpone chemo and radiation treatment. That was March 2009.
By July, Jason still wasn’t feeling well. He had a difficult time swallowing. When Jason had his follow-up exam, the cancer had taken over the entire left side of his throat. He immediately went through more than 20 radiation treatments, plus an aggressive chemo regiment.
His first chemo treatment was on a Friday night, which meant Jason missed his first Friday night high school football game ever. Needless to say, he was devastated. Before the game, the coaches and players brought a card to the hospital.
Jennifer had to drop by Airline High School one day when Jason was hospitalized. Everyone wanted to know how Jason was doing, assuring her Jason was in their thoughts and prayers.
“Coach Toby Todd, the baseball coach at Airline, asked me if there was anything they could do, and, of course, I first told him I was fine,” Jennifer said. “Then I broke down a little and told him there was something he could do. I didn’t know how to put the Christmas lights on the house and in the yard. I couldn’t do it by myself. Coach Todd said he would find a solution.”
Decorating the house and yard with the big, white Christmas lights was one of Jason’s great joys. He even had a schematic on the best way to string the lights. It was a tradition Jason loved, and it was a tradition that Jennifer and the kids embraced.
“The second year, a few boys who had graduated came back to help. The boys I take out there now never knew Jason Bland.”
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Coach Todd, the baseball team and other coaches came to the Bland household to string Christmas lights. That first time took the entire day (now they can do it in half the time).
“I made a video of the Airline group putting up the lights and took it to the hospital,” Jennifer said. “Jason loved it. He said they did a great job. Even though Jason was in the hospital, but we still had hope. We believed that Jason’s condition was temporary and that eventually he would be fine, even though we had been dealt quite a blow. When we received the really bad news about his cancer coming back, Dr. Nathan had tears in her eyes.”
A few months later, Jason and Jennifer found themselves at M.D. Anderson for treatment. The University Church of Christ paid the rent for the Blands to stay in Houston. Treatment at M.D. Anderson went on for weeks.
When the Blands were in Houston, Jason’s parents, Doug and Frances Bland, took care of the kids.
“We came home on Memorial Day weekend and we knew we wouldn’t be going back to M.D. Anderson,” Jennifer said. “Jason passed away June 7.”
The funeral was held a few days later at University Church of Christ. The church was overflowing with Jason’s family, church family, coworkers, students and friends. All the Airline football and baseball teams wore their jerseys.
“As Christians, there’s no doubt about salvation,” Hodge said. “But we lost something when we lost Jason. It was a severe blow. Jason had some buddies that spoke at the funeral and did a tremendous job.”
The funeral also allowed Jason’s parents to witness the love and admiration everyone had for their only son.
“He was a good man,” Doug said. “It really hit me when we had Jason’s funeral service. Jason was so loved and respected. It was uplifting.”
“He was a good husband and father,” Frances said. “Jennifer did everything for Jason. She very much loved her husband.”
Michelle Osborn, Jennifer’s closest confidant during this difficult time, admired her best friend’s courage.
“I saw Jennifer’s very strong faith,” Michelle said. “She was able to show the true meaning of joy, which is different from happiness. That there’s more to life than what is on this side of heaven.”
“Our goal for these young men is to make them accountable, make them responsible adults.”
It’s that kind of that respect for Jennifer and her daughters that keeps the Airline High School family coming every Thanksgiving week to help the Blands with their Christmas lights. It’s something the coaches, team and Bland family look forward to every year.
“The first year, everyone had a relationship with Jason,” Coach Todd said. “The second year, a few boys who had graduated came back to help. The boys I take out there now never knew Jason Bland. They go because they know it’s important to me and it’s something Airline baseball players do. It’s important to me because it’s important to Caroline and Hannah.
“Our goal for these young men is to make them accountable, make them responsible adults,” he continued. “I feel confident that they will become productive citizens, good fathers, good husbands, they won’t be a burden to society. Not because they played baseball, but because of the things they learned through athletics.”
The Airline baseball tournament has been renamed: now it’s called the Jason Bland Memorial Tournament, and that is a wonderful tribute. But Jason’s life has a deeper meaning: He helped shape great young men. He has a wife that continues to fight the good fight against cancer. His two daughters honor their dad by the way they lead their lives. His parents are generous, loving, faithful and faith-filled, even in the face of losing their only son.
That is a legacy; that is how everyone will remember Jason Bland.