Choosing Joy: Dover woman creates group to help fire victims in memory of daughter

Theresa Dawn Morris stands in front of a picture of her daughter and inspiration Joyce Anne Morris, who she lost in 2014 due to injuries sustained in a house fire. Ms. Morris founded the nonprofit organization Choose Joy, which helps victims of house fires, in her daughter’s memory. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

DOVER — When Theresa Dawn Morris lost her daughter, Joyce Anne “Joy” Morris, to injuries sustained following a house fire on Mother’s Day weekend 2014, she knew she had a choice — be engulfed by depression for the remainder of her life or do something positive to memorialize Joy.

She decided to dedicate herself to creating an organization called Choose Joy, which comes to the aid of victims of fire tragedies, in her daughter’s memory.

Choose Joy strives to assist families for the first year after a fire with basic needs such as food, housing, clothing, furnishings, transportation and emotional support from others who have been through the same trauma.

“We want to pay it forward and turn our tragedy into something more positive, something Joy would be proud of, and share who she was with the world,” Ms. Morris said. “Joyce Anne Morris lived, and she loved. She so badly wanted to change the world.

“Joy was a brave, loving, caring, understanding, nonmaterialistic and strong, one-of-a-kind lady. She was always one to put herself in others’ shoes. Her last words to me were, ‘I love you. Be brave, Mama,’ as they wheeled her into that last surgery.”

Choose Joy was founded to assist families after they experience a fire, including families of burn victims who are being treated at a burn unit, such as Crozer-Keystone Hospital in Chester, Pennsylvania. Many of the fundraisers the nonprofit organization puts on are shows at local venues such as Dover’s Grey Fox Grille & Public House. They have included magic acts, interactive murder mysteries, skating nights and concerts, most of which feature local musicians, throughout the area.

“In Joy’s memory, we have tried to pull a few of her passions in life together — helping others, unsigned (and) unheard musicians, promoting, working with other nonprofits and our community, and of course, having a good time,” said Ms. Morris. “Being a victim of a house fire that resulted in my daughter’s death, I have personally experienced the need.

“Fire is devastating and life-altering. It is something you don’t understand unless you experience it. I don’t think any of us ever get over it, but I think we work through it together by helping each other.”

Ms. Morris was also inspired to create Choose Joy because of the support she received while her daughter was in the burn unit at Crozer. For 24 days following the house fire, Joy was treated for burns to more than 80% of her body. Eventually, she had a blood clot start in her leg that traveled to her brain. She died just days after her 18th birthday.

While it was a traumatic experience that forever changed Ms. Morris’ life, she did remember the kindness and support she received while staying at Crozer to be by her daughter’s side.

She said she had a friend who made sure she had shoes to wear and others who routinely cooked her dinner so she didn’t have to eat fast food or hospital food during her stay.

“I spent 24 days at Crozer with my daughter, and they put me in what they called a check house, kind of like a Ronald McDonald situation, and every day, somebody from (Dover) would drive up there and make sure that I ate,” Ms. Morris said. “I had a friend who argued with me about shoes, because he said I was in flip-flops. I had just went up to my mom’s for an overnight (when the fire happened). I didn’t take anything really. He kept saying, ‘Where’s your shoes?’ and I said, ‘They’re in the closet.’

Theresa Dawn Morris gets into the act with a couple of her volunteers at one of Choose Joy’s many fundraisers that it holds to raise money for victims of house fires. (Submitted photo)

“We got in an argument because he didn’t literally want to say, ‘Theresa, your closet’s gone. Your shoes are gone. Let me go buy you shoes.’ He bought me shoes, people cooked me dinner, so I didn’t have to eat McDonald’s or hospital food, and while I was there I watched this wonderful man that was across from us who woke me up every morning. He’d put his kids on the bus and sit in the waiting room every morning with me.”

Revisiting a nightmare

On May 10, 2014, Ms. Morris drove up to her mother’s house near Wilmington to get ready for a cookout the family was preparing for Mother’s Day.

Then, she received a phone call from her son at 5:23 a.m. that changed her life forever — her family’s house near Dover was on fire.

“We went from up north down to here, my mom, stepdad and I, and I swear we made it in under 15 minutes,” said Ms. Morris. “I don’t know how we made it here, but we did, and my son stayed on the phone with me the whole time and kept describing my dog — but it wasn’t our dog, it was what my daughter was experiencing.

“When I asked my son what was happening, he was saying, ‘My dog was in the window’ and ‘My dog is stuck.’ My heart dropped as I heard the (emergency medical technician) tell my son he wasn’t allowed to see his sister, and I knew it wasn’t good,” she said. “The flames were over the treetops as we rounded the corner, and time stopped for me then. There is no feeling like seeing your whole life in flames.”

Her daughter was transported to Crozer, where she fought a hard 24-day battle before she succumbed to her injuries.

“I begged her doctors to save my baby and to treat her like their own daughter,” Ms. Morris said. “I believe in my heart they did. On May 14, she awoke some from her medically induced coma, and we were able to communicate a little. I treasure those long days. She went through a whirlwind of surgeries.

“And my days and nights were lots of paced hallways and tears in the shower. But I held faith she would come through it somehow. She had the best doctors, was a good person, and even the radio station was doing daily prayers for Joy.”

She added: “She seemed to have more and more time awake with me, … until on June 1, an infection in her eye caused complications. And she was once again in a coma. Joy passed on June 4 from a blood clot at 2:03 a.m. I was with her when she came into this world and when she left. It was the worst 24 days of my life, but also the most blessed.”

COVID comes calling

Ms. Morris said that times have been difficult for her Choose Joy organization since the COVID-19 outbreak began in earnest in March. Times have gotten much leaner for her and other nonprofits in Delaware.

“We are still running,” she said. “It’s been tough losing all our events and the questionable future, but fires are still happening, and we have a beautiful community that has stepped up to help as much as possible. The fires are happening even more with more folks at home.”

To change with the times, Ms. Morris said Choose Joy has created a website that allows organizers to do Zoom interviews and instant messaging with clients. They are also doing food and clothing giveaways for anybody in need at least once a month. They even helped the local community following Tropical Storm Isaias earlier this month.

Theresa Dawn Morris said she could never have founded Choose Joy in her daughter’s memory if not for all the volunteers who tirelessly give their time to help out. (Submitted photo)

“Winter is coming, and we will be needing all the help we can get to be able to help more people this holiday season,” Ms. Morris said. “Last year, we helped 132 people locally with gifts. We even had our own Santa to deliver the gifts.”

It is obvious that Ms. Morris is passionate about keeping her daughter’s legacy alive — but she insists that it’s not just her.

“I’m grateful for all the people I have in my life,” she said. “My daughter was an activist in the community. She was part of the ‘Occupy’ (movement). She was one of those kids at Legislative Mall and was in school to be a civil rights attorney, so she was real active in our community as far as labor rights, civil rights, helping anybody in need.

“So, when everything hit us, I had a lot of people who were there for me, which is beautiful. I have 83 people and a cat that will help me with anything I need. That, and I believe that I have a 10-foot angel who watches over me.”

She added: “My son and I are blessed. Luckily, we had family and friends who advocated for us and still do. We have built a team of volunteers who are helping us turn our grief and loss into something positive by paying forward the love and help we have received.”

To find out more about Choose Joy and the wide variety of fundraising events the organization hosts or to donate, email choosejoy421@gmail.com or visit choosejoy-foundation.com.