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Benet rallies around ill classmate to show support
By Joan Broz | Daily Herald Columnist

Jenna McKeown of Naperville, a senior at Benet Academy, is battling leukemia.

 

In a show of support for Jenna, at least 30 of her peers had their heads shaved, including Benet seniors Kyle Marinko, left, and Eric Behna and Naperville North junior Cam Barone, Jenna's cousin.

 

Courtesy of Laura Krumdick

Benet students have mobilized quickly with fundraisers and shows of support for Jenna. Many wear bracelets and ribbons in her honor and showed their love by turning their hands into hearts for a video for her.

 

Courtesy of Laura Krumdick

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Published: 11/23/2009 1:24 PM

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"Be Positive" is the message Benet Academy senior Jenna McKeown radiates. With a bright smile, she blends demands of school, sports, family and friends with living her faith.

The 17-year-old honor student handles a full schedule with confidence. There is tennis, lacrosse and school choir. Senior year brought applying to colleges and universities to pursue her interest in the medical field.

As the oldest of three, Jenna has developed a friendly, caring style of leadership. Winter would soon bring a favorite activity of ice skating with family and friends on a backyard pond.

"Jenna is a very sweet and caring person," said Naperville resident Maria Barone, Jenna's aunt.

But on Oct. 28, a routine visit to the doctor's office for a sore throat and extreme fatigue led to a diagnoses of acute myeloid leukemia. Jenna, daughter of Naperville residents Jerry and Amy McKeown, face a formidable challenge.

Classmates, community, friends and family rallied immediately to offer prayers. As quickly as the news spread, the offers of support rushed back.

"Within a 12-hour period, friends set up a plan to bring meals for the family for the next three months," Barone said. "It was stunning."

High school friends set up a Support Jenna group on Facebook and the news spread so fast that by the next morning students had organized a 7:15 a.m. Mass in the school chapel that was packed with students, teachers and parents, said Michael Macaluso, an English teacher and moderator of student government.

"The Mass was incredible because most kids found out about Jenna the night before," Macaluso said. "The ribbons and Mass are two examples of how much the students step it up when one of their own is in a situation like this."

More than 1,000 orange lapel ribbons for leukemia were made by students over a weekend and handed out at school. Brynne Perry, 17, shot a video with several classmates who tried to get as many teachers and students on film set to music to show Jenna the widespread support base she has at the Lisle school.

"We had everyone form a heart with their hands so Jenna would have a signal that everybody is supporting her," Perry said.

Student government President Kyle Marinko, 17, sporting a clean-shaven head, said 30 to 40 young men had their heads shaved to demonstrate their support. Others who couldn't come also shaved their heads and put photos on Facebook.

"Students also handmade about 120 bracelets and sold those out," Marinko said. "Now we've ordered customized orange (Lance) Armstrong-type bracelets we will sell during our annual Christmas drive."

"These activities are to show support and solidarity for Jenna through our thoughts and prayers," Macaluso said.

Jenna's indomitable spirit is meeting the challenge. When she learned that her blood type was B+, she immediately used that to set the tone for everyone to "Be positive."

With the first 10-day induction chemotherapy complete, round two soon will follow. Doctors say a bone-marrow transplant is necessary, too.

"It is an aggressive but curable form of leukemia," Barone said.

There are three ways the community can help.

In a spirit of gratitude this Thanksgiving season, Benet moms, teens and family will staff a blood drive to replenish supplies Jenna will need and to register people on the National Marrow Donor Program that operates Be The Match registry. Donors may do either or both.

"This is not only to find a match for Jenna, but also to give hope to the thousands of others who are currently searching for a match," Barone said.

Every year, 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia. One of every 200 people on the registry will have the opportunity to help a patient said Catherine Claeys, spokeswoman for Be The Match Registry.

The public blood drive and marrow registry will be on Wednesday, Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, in the St. Jude Commons at Benet Academy, 2200 Maple Ave., Lisle.

Blood donors must be 17 or older, or 16 with a signed parental consent form. Scheduling an appointment with Lifesource at (877) 543-3768 helps organizers have adequate supplies and staff, however people also may come to donate with no appointment.

Bone marrow donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60. Registration involves only completing a health history form and giving a swab of inside cheek cells, Claeys said. There is never any expense for a donor.

Those willing to donate marrow also may register online at join.marrow.org/4jenna. About 70 percent of the time, those who are asked to donate follow a procedure similar to donating blood plasma; in the other 30 percent of cases, donors under anesthesia have marrow drawn from the back of the pelvic bones. Within four to six weeks, a donor's body replenishes its own marrow. To learn more, check out BeTheMatch.org.

The third way to help is to donate to the National Marrow Donor Program to help defray its costs. Details are at bethematchfoundation.org/goto/4jenna.

"Jenna wants people to know that she is astounded and most grateful for the outpouring of prayers," Barone said. "She truly feels the presence of God's grace in so many ways."

Jenna's good friend Shannon Gasick, 17, who helped secure photos to run with this story, was asked what she would want Jenna to know.

Shannon responded: "Jenna, all of your classmates and teachers are supporting you 100 percent, doing whatever they can to help. As your Benet family, we will always be here for you."

As a member of Jenna's extended family, I know that same message reverberates far and wide.

• Joan Broz writes about Lisle. E-mail her at jgbroz@yahoo.com.