A wonderful life: Cancer research fueled by friends

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Ashley Code was an extraordinary Catholic teenager with such faith, optimism and care for others that now – three years after succumbing to a brain tumor – she is inspiring others to enact her dream to find a cure for cancer.

On July 21, the inaugural event was held for The Ashley Code Project, a nonprofit established just months ago by the Puente family. It was a sold-out movie screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Prytania Theatre. It was Code’s favorite movie, and seeing it there was her family’s annual tradition. Ashley even named her dog Zuzu after a character in the movie.

“You can tie so many things from your spiritual life into (the movie),” said Karen LaCour Puente, director of  The Ashley Code Project and mother of Madeline Puente, Ashley’s best friend who encouraged Jefferson Parish to establish an annual Ashley Code Day every Sept. 15 since 2016. “I love the spiritual element of that movie. And, Ashley was all about that.”

Film actress plays part
As a special treat, former child actress Karolyn Grimes (now 79 years old), who played “Zuzu Bailey” – the sick child whom Jimmy Stewart holds at movie’s end who says when a bell rings an angel gets his wings – was flown in for the event to discuss behind-the-scenes stories.

Grimes, who now lives in northern California, regaled moviegoers with insider facts about the movie. Her character’s name, Zuzu, came from a popular ginger snap brand at the time, and her father, George Bailey, even calls her “my little ginger snap” in the movie. And, the snow in the movie was first made from painted corn flakes, but because it was too noisy, it was switched to “fomite” – Ivory soap flakes and sugar. She said to notice the suds when Stewart jumps in the river as the angel Clarence saves him.

Grimes said she was in 16 films as a child actress from ages 4-15, and her role in “It’s a Wonderful Life” was one of her smallest parts.

“I was only in the movie for six minutes,” she said. But, those six minutes gave her a second career of speaking engagements and appearances, writing books and creating a line of “It’s a Wonderful Life” products.

She said she didn’t see the movie until age 40 – she fell asleep at the premiere – and the movie wasn’t really popular until it was resurrected in the 1980s and Stewart reached out to her.

Grimes, who has three daughters, said she was proud to be a part of the project at its beginning. She was moved to participate once she heard “a 17-year-old angel got her wings, and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was her favorite movie.… This is an event that will help other children because of Ashley. How can I say no?”

The Prytania Theatre, which shows Christmas movies annually to bring families together, donated ticket sales – $3,200 – to the project.

“It’s a generous donation for them to do this for us and help us launch the project,” LaCour Puente said. “This is a beautiful thing.”

What will project do?
Taking Ashley Code’s lead, LaCour Puente said the primary goal of the nonprofit is raising money to find a cure for pediatric brain cancer and to fund research and brain cancer treatment locally.

“(With the foundation) every day when I wake up, I feel one step closer and one dollar closer to helping kids who need this,” LaCour Puente said. “The money we raise will help recruit pediatric neurosurgeons who specialize in brain tumors that we don’t have here.”

She said most people don’t know that cancer is the No. 1 killer for children, and the federal government only provides 4% of its research dollars into pediatric cancer. That 4% gets divided up into all child cancers, including brain cancer.

“There needs to be, No. 1, awareness, and, No. 2, action,” LaCour Puente said.  “We’re trying to make more awareness.”

LaCour Puente cites little signs she attributes to Ashley that she is headed in the right direction with the project.  One of them is her studying to earn a degree in construction management and building and selling house with the profits going to the project.  She is working with a generous builder to secure land and build the first residential home in New Orleans – by the end of 2020 – and auction it for the project.

A second fundraiser – a Summer Piano recital with a bake sale and raffle – is scheduled Aug. 24 from 10 a.m.-noon, at John Calvin Presbyterian Church. Tickets are $5 at the door.

Cassi Code, Ashley’s mother, said she and her husband Michael wanted to do something in Ashley’s name, but with three other children– ages 19, 17 and 14– they didn’t have the time or strength to do it alone.  She was elated when LaCour Puente approached her with the project.

“We have faith in her. She knew us. She knew Ashley, and she knew our values,” Cassi Code said.

“Curing cancer was one of the things Ashley wanted to do in life,” Michael Code said.  “What we pray for constantly is to live with Ashley’s joy. …This is one reflection of that joy – to reach out to people and help people. We feel, in Ashley, a calling to carry on her spirit.”

To find out more about the nonprofit, visit theashleycodeproject.orgChristine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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