Cancer Club members: Margarita Ortiz, Estefany Bonilla, Annais Rodriguez, Kevin Reyes, Ericka Jones, Nicole Restrepo, Kristin Koppers Not pictured: Savannah Gonzalez and Veronica Ornelas - Class of 2014. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Updated: June 18, 2013 7:21AM
Eighteen months ago, Annais Rodriguez, now 17, was sitting in Kristen Koppers’ English class at Joliet West High School when Koppers announced she was beginning a Relay for Life club if anyone might be interested in joining.
Rodriguez didn’t hesitate.
“My grandma died of cancer two years ago and I wanted to get involved,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t go through it alone; it’s so hard. We need to be considerate, think about the other person and help them get through it.”
Since the club’s inception, they have participated in and fundraised for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. Members have also raised awareness through making a paper quilt and a “hope wall” of messages and donations for young cancer victims by designing and selling buttons and a “color me” shirt.
The Relay for Life club recently created — in acrylic paint — a 16-foot-by-39-foot cancer awareness mural that now hangs in the school’s upper hallway. Its designer, Nicole Restrepo, hopes viewers understand, “Together we can tough it, if we work hand in hand.”
Restrepo understands that message. When she was 12, a friend died from cancer. In that friend’s honor, Nicole raised $50 through fabricating Play-Doh sculptures and selling them at her school for 50 cents.
She feels it’s important for people of all ages to help, even though their involvement may take different forms.
“Cancer affects everyone differently,” Restrepo said.
Koppers, of Channahon — who lost her father, John Biksacky of Channahon, to pancreatic cancer and whose mother, Dianne Biksacky of Channahon is a breast cancer survivor — hopes next year, the club can form an official Relay for Life team that will raise money and participate in the 16-hour event.
This year, Relay for Life donated $1,000 to become an official sponsor of the walk. Last year, because the club was so new, Koppers encouraged support of the walk but the club did not participate as a group.
Rodriguez was one of the students in attendance.
Although Rodriguez thought the event was “really cool at first,” as the hours dragged along, she only felt tired. The activities and encouragement from other people kept her going, despite becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
“It just hit me about my grandma,” Rodriguez said. “I do miss her but I knew she’d want me to finish.”
If anyone can impress upon these students the importance of supporting one’s community, it’s Koppers. She’s volunteered in various capacities since eighth grade. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and her mother belonged to its auxiliary, so Koppers regularly helped her parents with fish fries.
“When I was 18, I became a life member,” Koppers said, “the youngest member of the women’s auxiliary.”
In early high school, Koppers volunteered as a camp counselor for a park district day camp for 2- and 3-year-olds. She also served as a candy striper at Silver Cross Hospital and later as a student ambassador giving building tours at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
So four years ago, just as Dianne went into remission from breast cancer, Koppers reflected on the practical way the American Cancer Society helped people with cancer: Gas cards so they could get to treatments, medication expenses and wigs.
“The cancer pill my mom takes every day to keep the cancer from coming back was created through the funds of Relay for Life,” Koppers said. “Then I noticed how many students had been affected by cancer. I didn’t want to start a support group. I wanted a club that could make a difference.”
To aid the students in their fight against cancer, send donations to Joliet West High School, attention Kristen Koppers, 401 N. Larkin Ave., Joliet, IL 60435.