KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If you talk to anyone who’s met Erron Jay, they’ll tell you he seems larger than life.
“He’s just a big teddy bear,” one friend said.
“No matter where he is or what he’s doing, he’s the life of the party,” said another friend.
That booming personality took him from the small stage at Hickman Mills high school, all the way to Hollywood.
He’s worked with everyone from Cedric the Entertainer, to Sean Astin, to Zendaya, landing roles in national commercials, TV shows, and movies.
His life was moving along right on script — and then came the plot twist.
“In April of 2020, right after COVID hit, I was diagnosed with stage four renal disease, which is, in layman’s terms, kidney failure,” Jay said. “When I was in the hospital, I thought it was a death sentence.”
Doctors say his kidneys are functioning at around 11 percent.
Jay was living in Los Angeles at the time, so he put his name on the transplant list there, in hopes of finding a kidney. In November, he decided to move back home to Kansas City, where the wait list is around 7 years shorter than in L.A.
Around the same time, one of Jay’s high school friends, Kari Tucker, sent a message to their old friend group and floated an idea.
What if they revived an old Hickman Mills tradition, with the goal of raising some money and finding Jay a kidney?
“I sent out the message to everyone that I knew was really close to Erron and who Erron had touched,” Tucker said. “And every single person said, ‘What do you need? I’ll be there.'”
That’s how “Old Heads Cougar Cabaret for Erron Jay” was born.
It’s based on a variety show that the Hickman Mills fine arts departments used to put on at the end of every school year.
Since the friend group met through the arts in high school, and many of them still work in that arena, they decided it was the perfect way to honor and help their friend.
“We’re storytellers,” Jermaine Blackwell, a member of the friend group, said. “We all wanted to make sure that Erron’s story was told.”
After months of planning, the live, virtual event debuted in early May. It featured musical performances, poetry, and messages from friends all across the country. One friend, Joel Kipper, even pulled out his old clogging shoes for a dance number.
They also invited a doctor and nurse from KU Medical Center to talk about kidney disease and the live kidney donor process, and people who had donated their kidneys in the past shared their experience.
“I went through a box of tissues,” Jay said. “To see everybody and be in the moment with everybody like that again was just fantastic.”
The event raised more the $4,000 for Erron’s medical expenses. More importantly, his friends said, it showed Erron he didn’t have to face this battle alone.
“I’m just so thankful for this group, for this village, that has wrapped themselves around him,” friend Bryan Benson said.
“Those feelings you have when you’re a kid, when you have your group of friends, and you think ‘we’re gonna be friends forever’ — it doesn’t last with a lot of people,” friend Jake Walker said. “But it lasted with us.”
“It’s the love that’s in this group of friends that I’ve been reminded of over the last few months,” Walker continued. “It makes me a better person.”
While the Cougar Cabaret event led to an increase in calls to the KU Live Donor program, they haven’t found a match for Jay yet.
In the meantime, he does dialysis three days per week, four hours each time. It’s keeping him alive, but it’s not a long-term solution.
“The next step is to get a kidney, successful transplant, and then get back to livin’ the life,” Jay said.
People who need a kidney often have better outcomes from a live donor, as opposed to a deceased one. Almost 40 percent of kidney donations come from living donors, according to KU Medical Center.
Anyone who is over the age of 18, has two kidneys, and is in good physical and emotional health can donate.
To start the process, potential donors go through a variety of tests to make sure they’re healthy. Then, doctors determine whether they are a match for the recipient. Even if you’re not a match for your intended recipient, you could be a match for one of the nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. who are waiting for a kidney transplant.
All of the donor’s medical costs are paid for, and generally, donors have no long-term effects from the donation.
Plus, you could help save a life.
In Jay’s case, he’s hoping to find his match soon so he can get back to what he loves most.
“I just want to get back to telling stories,” he said. “I want to get back on people’s television sets, and back in the movie theaters, where people can come and watch me on TV.”
In the meantime, he’s still thinking about how he can help others. He wants to make the “Old Heads Cougar Cabaret” an annual event, benefitting someone new each year.
“That’s going to be part of the legacy I get to leave is helping other people through what I’ve already been through,” he said.
If you would like more information about donating a kidney to Jay, call 913-945-6929. You can also find more information about the donation process on the KU Medical Center website.
Jay’s friends are also holding an online auction to raise money for his medical costs. It’s open now through June 1.
You can also donate directly on Jay’s GoFundMe page.