In January of 2023, Virgil VanKleek was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of childhood cancer, at only 14 months old. “Our family was crippled last year. Wounded very badly by cancer and the myriad of complications associated with its punches. Despite a tremendous victory in Virgil ringing his end of treatment bell, declaring he struck back and defeated cancer, our family had not healed,” his mother Amanda shared. When someone in your immediate family is sick it affects everyone. Those who have been through it know. With three boys Elijah 10, Maverick 4, Virgil 2 Amanda and Zach are fulltime working parents, and navigating what all goes into treatment can be daunting. A former JWF recipient Jennifer had shared her experience with the VanKleek’s and how her trip helped her family and knew that this trip would be beneficial for them all.

I usually write something up in my own words and ask the family to share a few thoughts about their trip to put it all together to share. Zach was actively sharing their trip on social media, and instead of me writing about it, I pulled from his posts and put it together.

Day One

“This place is like our own oasis. We just got here and can’t wait for all the fun things in store. Our hosts, and neighbors for this week the Wejebe’s have showered us in love and have gotten us ready for our week in and on the water. They were also so kind to honor Amanda for her birthday tomorrow with the tastiest beach themed cake. Thank you all from the bottom of our hearts. We are so excited for the events to come!”

Day Two

“Today we got to meet Captain Paul of Big Pine Beach Bum Charters, and he was absolutely amazing to our family! He is kind, patient, a great teacher of first-time anglers and interacts with kids so well. Today was simply good for our souls. To top it all off it was my sweet wife’s birthday. We shed happy tears and Amanda said it the best… “the difference a year has made! This is the best day of my life.” This trip so far has been therapy for our hearts. Seeing the boys splash in the blue water of the keys, fishing for the first time, and snorkeling, we just couldn’t ask for anything better!”

Day Three

“Sunday Funday around the Florida Keys! We met with our friend Krissy and her family at Plant a Million Corals Foundation and learned how they are helping to rebuild coral reefs around the world using micro fragmentation. It was amazing to see the process. We were lucky to meet Dr. Vaughn’s (who created the process) daughter, Dee Dee. She was amazing to listen to and it was awesome to see an organization helping to rebuild our reefs for people to enjoy and sea life to thrive. We played tourist today and went down to Key West to explore. We went by a local coffee shop, the boys played on a playground and went by the weather blimp we can see from our vacation home. We finished our day with an afternoon swim and rescued fiddler crabs that we found at the bottom of our pool. Maverick is progressing well in his swimming. Time for momma and daddy to relax.”

Day Four

“We went and fed some sharks today, and it was so awesome to see! The Harris family owns and operates Key West Extreme Shark Tour Adventures has been close to the Wejebe family for decades. It was awesome to hear some stories about Jose firsthand. This was a bucket list experience for me. We had such an amazing time on Day 4!”

Day Five

“Another amazing day in the books! We toured Aquarium Encounters today and fed all kinds of animals (barracuda, tarpon, various fish, turtles, and alligators). We had a Nurse Shark feeding/education tour which was so cool. We were able to feed and assist with training, and even got to pet them! We came home and had a picnic outside on the 3rd story porch overlooking the water. Kids took a quick nap, and I discovered a love for snorkeling! Once naptime was over it was time to swim in the pool. We topped off our evening spending some time with Krissy and her family. Boys played on the playground and we got to watch A.J. at soccer practice. They treated us to dinner at a local bar and grill and we all got to talk about life and family. It was simply another great day! On our way home we saw a local Key Deer. I don’t know how we are going to leave after this. This place is magical!”

Day Six

“Thank you again to Captain Paul of Big Pine Beach Bum Charters for showing us another amazing day on the Bougie Bum! The kids had a blast playing on their very own private beach and we were educated on so many different things. It is always great to watch our son’s soak up information and see them truly be invested in what they are being educated on. We learned about the life cycle of lobster traps, lobster and how to identify males and females, but also how to catch one. Captain Paul taught us about conchs. How to identify their age, where conch is allowed to be collected (not in the keys), types, and what they can be valued at. Another awesome thing was seeing Mel Fisher’s salvage vessel The Magruder. If you do not know who Mel Fisher is… he is the man that has found some of the most valued sunken treasure boats like The Atocha. This trip has taught us so much about how we should respect our waters. Today was another great day on the water!”

Day Seven

“Today we played tourist and roamed around Key West. We had breakfast at Harpoon Harrys, went to the Kino Sandals store, drove by the Southernmost Point, and had authentic Cuban food at El Siboney which came highly recommended by our friends Krissy and Captain Paul. We finished our day with lobster hunting off and around the dock and swimming with the Wejebe family in our vacation pool. We had a nice dinner as a family and watched the beautiful sunset.”

Day Eight

“A bucket list day for my beautiful wife. Her dream to swim with dolphins was coming true. As soon as Amanda walked up to the dolphin’s main lagoon she was in tears. Krissy and her mother both worked at Dolphin Research Center, so they let her take her foundation groups around the facility. We started off with some coolers of ice, and gently tossing it to the dolphins. They really enjoy it, and will make fun noises and splash to get your attention. While we did that Krissy talked to us about the different dolphins, the research they do there, how they train them, and all sorts of fun facts I had no idea about. We did a training session with the mom and babies dolphins and my beautiful wife was in heaven. Later we got into the water for some kisses, handshakes, and splash fights with the dolphins. We lost of course.

Thank you so much Jose Wejebe Memorial Foundation for putting this together! We had such a great time hanging out with you all! We can’t say enough what this vacation has meant for us all! You’ve brought so many smiles and happy tears to our families faces!”

After they left Amanda shared some more thoughts after reflecting on their time here.

“I don’t know that full healing will ever come, but we are at this point in time, mentally, the most whole and healthy we have ever been. The eight days we spent in the Keys, courtesy of the Jose Wejebe Memorial Foundation, was the antidote. It was exactly what we didn’t know we needed. We were refreshed, renewed, and healed in the salt water, sun, and beautiful family memories we made. We were rejuvenated watching our boys just be kids, playing and laughing, without a care in the world. We will never be able to thank the Jose Wejebe Memorial Foundation and all their supporters enough for granting us this opportunity. It was more than a trip. It was healing. It was unrivaled happiness. It was hope.”