It was early spring 2015 when Dina Theissen stepped outside her Palm Beach, Florida, home and spotted a little ball of gray fluff at the bottom of an oak tree near her front door.
The baby bird had either fallen from its nest or had been abandoned, and Dina knew that it would die if she didn’t act quickly.
A wildlife rescue agency advised her to leave the bird and see if the mother would return for it, but when that didn’t happen, Dina took the nestling inside to her enclosed patio, where her daughter, Alyssa, then 6, fixed up a shoebox as a nest and named the bird “Gracie.” Then Dina, her husband, Ken, and Alyssa soaked dry cat food in water and took turns feeding it to the baby bird every 30 minutes.
About a month later, Gracie’s adult feathers grew in, and the Theissens discovered that they were caring for a bluejay. They also learned that “she” was actually a “he,” but no matter. “Gracie,” they decided, was as good of a name as any.
Fast forward two-and-a-half years, and Gracie, who has now raised four broods of baby jays with his mate, has spent most of his life in the wild, ever since the Theissens released him when he was five weeks old. But he still visits the family every day and is especially attached to Dina, who gently carried him into the house and into her heart that spring morning.
Gracie’s daily visits helped Dina, 47, summon the courage and strength to recover from ovarian cancer in 2016.
“Gracie would fly over, come in through the little hole in our porch screen and sit next to me on the couch,” Dina, a special needs teacher who is now in remission, tells PEOPLE. “I was very weak and tired, and he would be chirping away, acting like he was having a conversation with me. It’s like he knew that something was wrong — he was showing empathy.”
“I truly believe that Gracie knows we saved him and that we’re his human family,” she says.
“During that difficult time, Gracie gave us hope and helped us to focus on the positive,” adds Ken, 49, who works as a strength and conditioning coach. “During his visits, we didn’t have anger, uncertainty or fear, and Dina was comforted. It was incredible to witness the difference he made to Dina when she was recovering from surgery and going through chemotherapy.”
The Theissens, who have learned more about bluejays than they ever imagined, now leave little surprises like acorns in their potted plants for Gracie, who then stashes them in secret spots around the nearby lake where he keeps his nest.
“He used to always take off with some of Alyssa’s things — especially green beads and plastic insects,” Dina recalls.
Hoping to share Gracie’s adventures with others, she and her family now have Facebook and Instagram pages devoted to the “fourth member” of their clan, and Ken has written a book on Gracie and how he has changed the Theissens.
“Every single day, Gracie brings us smiles,” says Ken. “Whenever he has a new brood, Gracie flies in to introduce them and they all squeeze in through the hole in the patio.”
There is no ignoring the harsh calls for attention on the back porch.
“Whenever Gracie’s here, the calls echo through the entire house,” Dina tells PEOPLE. “He shows up and my day is instantly brighter. He’s not just a bird — he’s my guardian angel.”