One year ago, nonprofit Join the Flock set out to raise money to help 13 families struggling with cancer with mortgage payments and other needs.

The foundation — which was started by Shiloh High School grad Keeli Simpson and one of her University of Georgia sorority sisters, Jennifer Lazo — ended up raising $7,785 in 30 days.

This year, Join the Flock is setting out to meet its 2019-20 fundraising goal of $75,000 to help with mortgage assistance for more families — but it is doing so without Lazo.

Jennifer Lazo died in May after a years-long battle against cancer. She’s survived by her husband, Mario, and two daughters, Eden and Monica, but also by the legacy she left. Keeli Simpson and her husband, Jamie Simpson, another Shiloh graduate, are trying to help grow that legacy.

The Simpsons offered support to Mario Lazo and his daughters, who they grew close to in the past year. One way they thought they could help was by growing the reach of their organization, Join the Flock, by reaching out to a show that Jennifer Lazo had watched avidly — “Ellen,” hosted by comedian Ellen DeGeneres.

“Jennifer, my wife, used to love the ‘Ellen’ show when she was down,” Mario Lazo said. “She used to watch the show and was so excited to watch the show.”

Producers for DeGeneres’ holiday-themed special, “Ellen’s Greatest Night of Giveaways,” replied with interest in featuring the Lazos and Join the Flock on an upcoming episode. That episode will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday on NBC.

The episode features the Lazo family and actress Melissa McCarthy helping the Simpsons deliver Christmas gifts to a family.

The Simpsons said they wanted to document the reaction of the recipients.

“I think it’s important for people to see how touched they are when you help them,” Keeli Simpson said.

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Mario Lazo and his daughters flew out to L.A. to meet DeGeneres. Crews also came to their house. Being featured on the show felt like a bittersweet moment for the family without Jennifer, Mario Lazo said.

“I knew it was happening, but she was not with me,” Mario Lazo said. “She would have been more than happy to enjoy the whole thing. It was something I never imagined would happen.”

The story of Join the Flock starts with a leap of faith — and leads to another leap of faith.

Jennifer Lazo worked as a retail pharmacist when she was first diagnosed. She changed careers on a dime, going 100% into real estate, and founded Casa De Lazo, a home staging business. That business led her to meeting Jamie Simpson and reconnecting with Keeli.

The Lazos were staging a house that Jamie Simpson’s company was buying. That’s when Jennifer realized Jamie was married to Keeli Simpson. Jennifer and Keeli reconnected on social media and, eventually, began staging homes at Simpson Real Estate Group.

“Just from the beginning, Jennifer had a warm presence about her,” Keeli Simpson said.

At the time, Jennifer worked while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. The Lazos tried everything. Jennifer went to MD Anderson for opinions. They sought treatments and opinions out of the country. She turned to natural, holistic treatment methods.

Mario Lazo said his wife was a warrior and stayed positive through it all, but the financial stresses of battling cancer were taking their toll. That inspired Jennifer’s idea to support the mortgages of families affected by cancer.

The Simpsons, who had grown close to the Lazos, decided they could help. Keeli Simpson, who was working for the Coca-Cola Company at the time, asked herself, “Do I need to wait for a cancer diagnosis to take this leap?”

“If she has this dream, we have to help her make it come true,” she said.

So Keeli Simpson and Jennifer Lazo officially started Join the Flock in October 2018. The name comes from the collective term for a group of flamingos, which seemed like a fitting mascot since their stereotypically pink feathers coincide with breast cancer advocacy.

Mario Lazo said he supported his wife but knew the mental and emotional toll of starting a charity with such ambitious goals would be a challenge. He tried to help her visualize things while she focused on getting better and building the brand of the organization.

She began reaching out to talk show hosts on both the local and national levels — including DeGeneres.

“We were just doing as much as we could,” Keeli Simpson said. “It was as simple as Jennifer had this dream.”

The first few months saw the group helping 13 families, including the family of Mill Creek High School teacher and coach Ashley Taube. But then Jennifer Lazo took a turn for the worse.

While her death in May could have crippled the foundation in its early stages, it didn’t.

In October, Join the Flock registered as a 501(c) nonprofit. Meanwhile, the people on the organization’s board of advisors, Mario Lazo said, had personal connections to his wife that will keep the organization running strong.

“There’s a lot of personal feelings on this project and what’s driving everybody,” he said. “I know next year is going to be a bigger goal.”

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Taylor Denman is a reporter born and raised in Gwinnett County. He came back home to seize the rare opportunity of telling stories about the county in which he grew up.

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