Legacy nonprofit charts launch of project to house patients’ families

A long wait might be over soon for a Temecula nonprofit group that has struggled to plug a regional gap in family support services.

If successful, a cadre of community leaders will end a nearly six-year lull by finding a home for Jacob’s House, a nonprofit formed to temporarily house relatives of medical patients who are hospitalized in the Temecula area.

“That’s really our focus at this point,” said Shawn Nelson, who retired as Temecula city manager early this year. “We’re just keeping that in thoughtful prayer and hoping that the right opportunity will catch up to us.”

The effort traces its roots to the traffic collision death of Nelson’s adult son, whom the nonprofit was named after. Nelson and other organizers say the project, which would be the first of its kind in the area, recently reached a fund-raising milestone that will allow it to move forward.

“It’s been based on a vision of helping families in crisis, and we’re really pleased that the community has been so supportive,” Nelson said in a recent interview.

Nelson said the group hopes to gain traction by shifting its focus. Instead of building a costly large facility, organizers may instead purchase an existing house that could be easily adapted to meet the program’s needs.

Taking that approach would finally give the program some substance and make it easier for area residents to grasp its potential for serving financially-squeezed families.

“The community will be able to see it and touch it,” Nelson said. He said the group hopes to purchase a property early next year and have the program up and running about the time Temecula’s first hospital opens in the fall of 2013.

It was about four years ago that Jacob’s House received its first major donation – $12,340 – from the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association. The association donated proceeds from its 2008 Food & Wine Classic to the then-fledgling nonprofit.

A recent golf tournament netted Jacob’s House its largest contribution to date, about $73,000. That has bumped the nonprofit’s fundraising total to about $265,000, Nelson said. It is hoped that the amount will allow the group to open and start operating a hospitality house similar to Ronald McDonald House facilities that trace their origin to 1974.

Death fuels grief, action

Jacob Nelson was 24-years-old when he died Oct. 22, 2006, at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido. He was airlifted there following a solo-vehicle accident on Interstate 15 near the Deer Springs Road exit in northern San Diego County. At the time, California Highway Patrol officials said witnesses reported he was driving south in excess of 100 mph when he lost control of his 2007 Toyota Tacoma.

Jacob Nelson’s blood alcohol level at the time of his death exceeded the state’s legal threshold for drunken driving, according to a San Diego County autopsy report. His death stunned Temecula political and community leaders.

In December 2006, the City Council voted to spend $5,000 to name a championship baseball field in Jacob Nelson’s honor. That field was dedicated at Patricia H. Birdsall Sports Park near Great Oak High School. A memorial plaque installed there featured a likeness of Jacob Nelson.

Council members at the time noted the close ties between Birdsall, who is now deceased, and Jacob Nelson and his parents and siblings. Other expressions of emotions and family faith surfaced following the young man’s death.

Nonprofit’s genesis

A week after the accident, Nelson kept a prior commitment and spoke to about 1,500 people at a fund-raising event for an existing Ronald McDonald House in Loma Linda.

During that talk, Nelson first spoke about a traffic collision a decade earlier that nearly claimed the life of his daughter, Jennifer. Nelson told of how his family had stayed in a Ronald McDonald House when his daughter’s life hung by a thread. Then Nelson told of the recent traffic death of his son. He finished his emotion-laced comments by saying Temecula needed a Ronald McDonald House of its own.

Within a month, a nonprofit foundation launched efforts to bring a Ronald McDonald House to Temecula. The organizers soon learned, however, that a Ronald McDonald House could not be built in Temecula because the approved new hospital would not be a children’s hospital.

Group leaders subsequently revised the goals of the proposed hospitality house and decided it should serve families of medical patients of all ages and it would be named after Jacob Nelson.

Shawn Nelson later detailed his son’s legacy and the nonprofit group’s formation during a speech he gave at a September 2007 prayer breakfast held at Rancho Community Church in Temecula.

In that speech, Nelson told of his difficult childhood in which his grandfather was a guiding force. He told of the important role that athletics played in his youth and high school years. He recalled the tough financial times he experienced and how, at one point, he let his career take precedence over his marriage and his young family.

He also noted the positive turns his life took when his spiritual and family bonds strengthened and he began to rely more on God in his everyday life. Nelson told of highpoints in his son’s life and he recalled his talk at the Ronald McDonald fundraiser.

“God told me to go (speak),” Nelson said during the prayer breakfast. He also recounted his remarks about needing a Ronald McDonald House in Temecula.

“This is what God wanted me to say,” Nelson recalled. “That’s why he wanted me to go to the fundraiser.”

Project’s status

For several years, Jacob’s House primarily focused on organizational issues and holding fundraising events that included annual golf and softball tournaments.

Sensitive to avoid conflict of interest questions, Nelson said the group did not seek grants or financial help from Temecula or other cities in the region. It continues to take that approach, he said.

The nonprofit’s formative years were shadowed by a sharp downturn in the economy, and the demands of Nelson’s high-profile job limited the amount of time he could spend on Jacob’s House activities.

“He’s moving forward now and affecting other people,” Linda Mejia, a longtime board member of Jacob’s House, said of Nelson’s post-retirement involvement. Mejia is a Murrieta code enforcement officer whose own son died on the cusp of adulthood. Adam Mejia was a standout wrestler at Temecula Valley High School who died at age 17 in November 1996 after a brief bout with cancer.

Mejia said the group has weathered several challenges and has emerged energized and educated about the steps needed to open and operate a hospitality house.

“It definitely is not a project for the faint of heart,” she said. “I think we’re doing well. We’re definitely on the right track. There’s hope.”

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