A Legacy of Faith
Article by Kay Stothart Rector and photography by Martin G Meyers
Justin Perkins founded Melissa’s Legacy to provide help and hope to others.
Justin Perkins is a young man on a mission, determined to honor the memory of his late wife, Melissa, and to help others struggling to care for a critically ill family member. Melissa Perkins was only 32 years old when she died of breast cancer in October of 2016. She left behind three small children–son Judah, now six years old, four year old daughter Annalise, and son David, who just turned three. In their children, Justin finds inspiration and hope for the future. In Melissa, he found unparalleled faith and courage. In other families dealing with cancer, he finds a way to return the gifts of grace and kindness he once received.
Justin and Melissa met as children. “Our parents were best friends,” Justin explains. “We actually have videos of the two of us playing together when we were little.” As they grew older, they saw each other less and eventually drifted apart during their teenage years. Justin, three years younger than Melissa, started using drugs and served time in jail for drug-related offenses. He entered two different rehabilitation centers before finding recovery from his drug and alcohol addictions.
Clean and sober, Justin began taking college classes in 2007 and landed a part-time job at Outback Steakhouse in West Monroe. Coincidentally, his childhood friend Melissa worked at Outback, where she had been for three years. They reconnected through work and through the church they both attended. “We started hanging out at church a lot, praying together. We were friends, and little by little, I started falling for her,” Justin says. The couple began dating, got engaged and were married on August 8, 2008. “I was only twenty years old and she was just twenty-three. We went on a cruise, and I was so young that she had to be my legal guardian,” Justin laughs. They were looking forward to a long and happy life together.
“Melissa always wanted lots of children,” says Justin. “I still remember the day we found out she was pregnant with Judah. She was jumping up and down, so happy. That was all that she wanted in life—a husband and kids.” Fifteen months after Judah’s birth, their daughter Annalise was born. Twenty-two months later, baby David arrived.
While nursing their youngest child, Melissa began having pain in one of her breasts. She consulted her doctor, who attributed it to a clogged milk duct. The pain continued, getting worse each time she nursed. Because she had developed a benign lump in the same breast years earlier and undergone a lumpectomy, they were concerned and sought another opinion. Melissa was ultimately diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
“That was a crushing blow,” Justin remembers. “I was on a forklift at work when she called me. We had been waiting on the results, so I knew that’s why she was calling. I pulled over, got off that forklift, and she said, ‘I have cancer.’” He recalls leaving work to go home to her, sitting in his truck minutes later, crying. “She was at home waiting, trying to hold it together for the kids. It was terrible.”
Justin freely admits that theirs was not a perfect marriage. Life before Melissa’s cancer diagnosis was often full of tribulation, despite their blessings. Justin was working long hours to support their growing family, while Melissa was at home all day, caring for an infant and two toddlers. Money was scarce, and the couple argued a lot. Justin says that he had seriously considered divorce, but worried about the effect it would have on their children. “Melissa didn’t believe in divorce,” he says. She kept insisting they work their problems out.
“Melissa’s cancer diagnosis changed everything,” Justin says. “From that minute on, I knew that nothing else mattered. Whatever problems we had, whatever else was going on, all of that just went on the back burner. I focused everything on her and on how we were going to get through this.” For days after Melissa’s diagnosis, there were lots of tears as they both struggled with emotions, including fear and the uncertainty of what to do next. They also prayed a lot.
Justin vividly remembers receiving what he refers to as God’s grace. “I still remember what she was wearing,” he says as he recalls that moment. “She had this pink shirt on with a grey jacket, her hair in a ponytail. She looked at me and said ‘Do you feel that?’ And I knew exactly what she was talking about, because I had been feeling it, too. We felt God’s grace. It was so heavy. It was like he tied two bags full of grace, heavy as bricks, and set them in our arms.” Justin says that as they prayed, God spoke to them. “He told us both, at separate times, that we were going to go through this, but we were going to overcome it. Every single day after that, for the next two years, Melissa had a smile on her face.”
The fact that Melissa could smile in the face of all that she endured is, Justin believes, a testament to the power of God. Her medical condition was dire, and the treatments were debilitating. Her first rounds of chemotherapy took months and made her horribly ill, unable to take care of herself or the children. She underwent a double mastectomy. After recovering from surgery, she was treated with radiation. She had 37 radiation treatments over the course of 7 weeks. Justin recalls her taking pictures with the children, smiling for the camera as she counted off each step in her initial treatment plan. “She wanted to be with the kids more, but she was so sick that most days she just couldn’t. And that was so hard for her emotionally, too,” Justin says. “She was such an awesome mom. That was her biggest frustration, having to watch someone else take care of her kids.”
A brief respite came in 2015, when doctors gave them hope that Melissa was cancer-free. Within weeks, however, the pain and symptoms had returned, and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. The couple traveled to MD Anderson in Houston, and lived in and out of hospitals for months while Melissa had more chemotherapy and they explored other treatments and clinical trials that might improve her prognosis. Melissa suffered burns from the radiation, and late in her treatment she developed an open wound under her arm that would not heal. She endured constant, excruciating pain from that, with no relief. “She was in absolute misery for the better part of two years,” says Justin. “But she would still smile. When the pain was so terrible near the end, she would endure it without letting anyone know, just to spend thirty minutes with the kids. That’s how strong she was.”
Friends and family members supported Melissa and Justin as she battled cancer. People brought food, offered to babysit, and extended kindness and love in various other ways. Friends as well as strangers continued to make donations through the Facebook page to defray the cost of medical care, travel expenses and household expenses. “For the first eight months she was in treatment, we did not have to cook a meal. That is how much food people brought to our house.”
In the midst of their trials, friends also helped the Perkins create a Facebook page called “Melissa’s Hope.” The social media page was initially used as a means to keep friends and family updated on Melissa’s medical condition and to raise funds for her medical treatment. Justin says that after posting an announcement about the course of treatment they had chosen and what it would cost, they were overwhelmed with donations. “In that first two months, we were given almost $20,000.00,” Justin says. “We were able to pay for her treatment, hire sitters, and I was able to take off work to be with her during the treatments and surgery.”
On the Melissa’s Hope Facebook page, Justin also began chronicling their spiritual journey. As his brief medical updates evolved into longer, more detailed posts, writing became an emotional release for him. He wrote honestly about their struggles, about the emotional and physical pain, and about Melissa’s unwavering faith in God. “She stayed faithful to God the whole time,” Justin says. “A lot of people go through hard times, and question or get angry at God. Melissa never once did that. She always understood she had a greater purpose. She stayed true to Him first, and true to her family next, right up to the end.”
In August of 2016, they left MD Anderson after Melissa’s final treatment. A friend offered to buy them a steak, so they stopped on the way home at an Outback Steakhouse for what would be their last dinner date. Melissa’s condition deteriorated rapidly after their return home and within a few weeks the help of hospice care nurses was enlisted.
Melissa Perkins passed away on October 9, 2016. As he said goodbye to his wife of eight years, Justin made a promise to Melissa. “I will continue your legacy of faith,” were the final words he said as he held her hand for the last time.
After Melissa died, the Facebook page formerly titled “Melissa’s Hope” became “Melissa’s Legacy.” Justin’s focus changed, and he dedicated himself to the task of keeping his promise, continuing Melissa’s legacy of faith. “In those two years, we never lost faith. Grace was on us, and that’s how we were able to go through everything that we did. I wanted to honor that,” he says.
In the weeks and months after her death, Justin continued to write each night as he grieved for Melissa. He is now writing a book about their experience, memorializing how God worked in their lives throughout the ordeal of Melissa’s illness. Perkins has also taken what started as a social media outlet and developed “Melissa’s Legacy” into a charitable foundation, with a mission, clearly defined goals, and status as a 501(3)(c) non-profit organization that accepts tax-deductible donations.
“My passion is to help those who are going through what I’ve been through,” says Perkins. In printed brochures, Perkins has outlined his future plans for Melissa’s Legacy. “It is our prayer that what started as a small community response to our family’s needs during crisis will spark a fire in others and they too will get involved and have the desire to help others, and a national movement will be birthed in the hearts of millions with a desire to effect change.”
With the donations received, Melissa’s Legacy provides families battling chronic illness with assistance by paying rent or mortgage notes on the family home, money for travel expenses, meals and help with utility bills. “We believe that no family should ever have to make the choice between paying a monthly bill or providing treatment to a sick family member,” says Perkins. “Unfortunately, this happens every day.” By providing this type of assistance, Melissa’s Legacy makes it easier for families to focus on treatment and recovery.
With funds on hand, Perkins did not have to look far to find a family to assist. He learned that Zayh Davis, his co-worker at Ryan Honda in Monroe, has been dealing with a family situation similar to his. Davis’ girlfriend, Diyell Daggs, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Daggs is twenty-nine years old and the mother of six children—Jayline, Jeremiah Daggs, Jazlyne, Jeremiah Jones, Jason and Ja-Zyia.
Daggs and Davis met as teenagers through Davis’ cousin, who was Daggs’ best friend. Daggs was only thirteen and Davis was fifteen at that time. Davis’ first attempt to date Daggs was unsuccessful. “I asked her grandmother if I could take her to the movies. She told me no,” Davis laughs. He and Daggs remained friends but eventually lost touch as they grew older. Daggs found what she believed was love with someone else, got married and had children. Unfortunately, that turned out to be an abusive relationship. In the midst of leaving that situation, she went back to school, earned a degree in medical assisting and went to work in the medical field to support herself and her children.