How one South Florida woman turned a tragedy into a charity

Back in 2003, Sandra Muvdi, CEO and founder of the Jessica June Cancer Foundation (JJCCF), lost her seven-year-old daughter Jessica to an aggressive form of cancer, Acute Milosidic Leukemia.

“After my loss, I had a huge void, and I didn’t know what my purpose was going to be or what I should do with my life,” she said, “why I should wake up every day?”

Jessica was Muvdi’s only child, and the loss hit her hard. While traveling to Colombia to grieve with family living there, she found out about Sanar, a charity for children with cancer in Colombia. Her family began to collaborate with the group, and to this day still helps and supports it.

“That was my first connection to a nonprofit organization that helped children with cancer… When I came back here I actually did my homework to see how [making] this organization was going to be in the U.S… to help the need here, where I am,” said Muvdi.

In the wake of this loss and grief, Muvdi wanted to find hope. She spoke with social workers in hospitals who were working with families with sick children. Here she found out about the dire need for financial help.

Families with sick children go through a medical and emotional crisis, which most people understand, but the financial struggle is another matter. Often, they need a full-time caretaker, requiring one parent (if it is a scenario of a two-parent household) to stay home. With less income and an onslaught of medical bills, families often become overwhelmed.

“You are trying to save your child’s life and at the same time you’re gonna lose your home or your car,” said Muvdi.

For families from other countries, it only becomes harder. Some nonprofits don’t help if families are here without documentation or if they aren’t citizens, JJCF helps fill that gap. They help any family in need within the state of Florida, even families that are not citizens, as long as the child is being treated in a Florida medical facility. The charity itself is headquartered here in Fort Lauderdale, with most of its cases in South Florida.

All the children take part in the financial assistance program. They are usually below the poverty line and are on Medicaid. Social workers at various hospitals across the state have JJCCF applications and fill them out for families. Muvdi reviews the applications and speaks with the families one on one. She figures out their needs and how the organization can help. Finally, they are provided a one-time family assistance grant. It is never cash, always a payment, whether it be a rent check made out to the landlord or a prepaid card that can only be used on groceries. This is to make sure the funds are going to the right place.

For families with greater needs, the organization has an Advocacy Program. This program lasts six months. People can donate directly to the families through the website. All of  those funds go directly to the families

Before starting the charity, Muvdi had never been involved with the nonprofit world, but her background in business helped guide her through the bumps and the initial learning curve. She has an MBA, which taught her the necessary savvy and know-how.

“It’s a business, even though it’s a nonprofit,’’ she said. “You have to run it as a business.”

To this day she is the only employee. She has help from many volunteers, though. One such volunteer is Magali Salazar. Salazar, originally from Peru, met Muvdi through mutual friends in South Florida. Going through similar points in life, the two became instant friends and their daughters often played together. After the loss of Jessica, Salazar and her family wanted to do anything they could to help the foundation and were its first volunteers. 

“She dedicates 24/7 to this organization,” Salazar said of Muvdi.

Much of this energy goes into organizing fundraisers. Their signature event is called Fancy Jeans. In it, a child is nominated to be honored as a representation of the foundation. It’s a big gala with a jeans-only dress code. The fun surprise is that the child gets to invite a celebrity guest and no one knows who it will be until the day of the event.

At the last Fancy Jeans party in 2017, the honoree was Veronica Avila, 11. At the time, she was in remission from Osteosarcoma, bone cancer. Her celebrity guest request was Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres wasn’t able to attend, so instead, she offered to fly Veronica, her mom and her little sister out to Los Angeles to be on her show with all expenses paid. DeGeneres also gave her a laptop on-air and a check for $10,000 to help pay for her future education.

“It was so nice to see the happiness of the family, and the little girl who has gone through so much receive so much love,” said Muvdi.

Since its creation, JJCCF has helped 1,451 children, impacting 6,400 individuals including their families. Last year alone they helped 111 different families and on average 100 passes through the foundation in a year and are able to get aid.

A standout story from last year is Elizabeth Aviles. Elizabeth was diagnosed with infant Leukemia and had to undergo a bone marrow transplant at less than one year old. Along with her cancer, her two older brothers were diagnosed with autism. The family was under a lot of pressure and intense strain. The father had attempted suicide because of this stress. JJCCF was able to place the family in its advocacy program. Now, the family is doing much better, financially and emotionally, Muvdi said.

Elizabeth Aviles as a baby and her mother.

“This family has been able to overcome so much adversity with the help of the community,” said Muvdi.

Muvdi said the charity makes the hardest experiences in a person’s life less debilitating, all in her daughter’s name.

“It’s a very gratifying and rewarding experience to be able to give in any capacity,” Muvdi said. “. It has been, for me, my lifesaver.”

Olivia Guthrie is a Junior at Florida International University currently majoring in Journalism with a minor in Religious Studies. She hopes, upon graduation, to be a journalist living in a big city making video-based media. She hopes through her work she can help educate the public on issues they are facing.