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Retired CIA officers work with Jessie Rees Foundation to raise money for children battling cancer

NEW YORK — As spy thrillers go, the plot may sound familiar: A retired U.S. intelligence officer works quietly to move high-value items out of a war zone. A top Ukrainian general personally signs the contents and ensures they’re driven safely away from the front lines of his country’s raging battle with Russia.

The box of secret items arrives in Washington with just hours to spare. The retired intelligence officer covertly transports it to its final destination, the Spyscape museum in midtown Manhattan, where it’s opened and the objects inside revealed in dramatic fashion to a crowd of former spies, national security professionals, journalists and business leaders gathered in a second-floor ballroom nestled beneath the city’s iconic skyline.

That sequence of events, dramatic as it may sound, played out last week and culminated on stage at a high-powered New York City gala to raise money for children battling cancer.

The event, organized by the Jessie Rees Foundation and hosted by the Spyscape museum, included an auction that saw event-goers bid on a CIA humidor signed by former agency director and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, a tour of Fenway Park and prime seats to a Boston Red Sox game, autographed books and sports memorabilia, and other collectibles.

The most priceless thing on display was a collective expression of hope and solidarity for children and their families coping with the realities of pediatric cancer diagnosis, as well as the strain of chemotherapy, radiation and other cancer treatments.

The espionage-themed undercurrent of the fundraiser brought a special sense of excitement to the evening, with some of the highest bid-fetching items on auction having arrived in New York in secret.

Near the end of the auction, Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Clandestine Services officer, unveiled a Ukrainian flag signed by Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, and a Ukrainian national team soccer jersey. The jersey bore the number “46,” representing the roughly 46 children diagnosed with cancer every day.

The jersey also bore the phrase “Never Ever Give Up,” the Jessie Rees Foundation mantra that has inspired countless children and their families around the country to keep up the fight against cancer.

“The Ukrainians know something about never, ever giving up in spite of Russia’s brutal aggression,” Mr. Hoffman, a columnist for The Washington Times, told the crowd as he showed off the Ukrainian items that were ultimately sold for a bid of $4,500.

The event raised $180,000, according to organizers, who said 86 cents of each $1 raised will go directly to caring for children dealing with cancer, as well as their families.

Named in honor of Jessie Rees, who died in 2012 at the age of 12 after a battle with cancer, the organization is perhaps best known for its “Joy Jars,” delivered to children’s hospitals around the country and packed with toys and other age-specific goodies for young patients, designed to keep up their spirits while they are in the fight for their lives against pediatric cancer.

The project was the brainchild of Jessie Rees, who crafted the first Joy Jars herself while fighting cancer.

“She chose to run toward other kids, and show compassion and joy and empathy in the midst of her fight,” Jessie’s father, Erik Rees, said at the event Thursday night in Manhattan.

Inside each Joy Jar, he said, is information for the affected family to join “Club NEGU,” named after Jessie’s “Never, Ever Give Up” slogan. Beyond funding the jars themselves, donations to the foundation help fund an 18-month encouragement program for families and other initiatives the organization has developed over the past decade.

The Washington Times sponsored a table at the event and members of its National Security reporting team attended.

Times National Security Team Leader Guy Taylor’s son Leo, 15, who is battling a desmoid tumor, was also there promoting his project to develop specially padded shirts designed to cover the medical port that most chemotherapy patients have surgically placed on their chest. Having such shirts would help protect the delicate port device and may give the patients more ability to partake in physical activity, such as playing basketball or jumping on a trampoline with their siblings or friends.

On stage in New York City, Mr. Rees asked members of the audience how many of them remembered where they were during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Save for the young children in attendance, every hand in the room went up.

But Mr. Rees then asked whether anyone remembered what they were doing on March 3, 2011, the day his daughter, Jessie, was diagnosed with cancer.

“Life is the sum of defining moments,” he said. “In your lives, that wasn’t a defining moment. March 3, 2011, was like 9/11 in the Rees home.”

Many of those who attended the event have seen their own lives affected in one way or another by cancer.

Mr. Hoffman’s wife, Kim, died in 2021 after a battle with neuroendocrine cancer. The former CIA officer drew a parallel between his past profession and the charitable work he’s doing now.

“What does espionage have to do with fighting cancer? Four words: Never, ever give up,” he said. “That was also our mantra at CIA, never, ever give up. That means exfiltrating our sources from behind enemy lines. It meant recruiting spies and stealing secrets in the so-called denied areas like China, Russia, Iran or North Korea.

“And most important of all, along the way, honor those who we lost in places like Baghdad and Benghazi,” he said. “Honor their memories by carrying on with our sacred mission. And that’s what we’re doing here tonight.”

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