Photo by Daniel Dumas (Parish Photography)
The word “inspirational” is used with such frequency nowadays that it has lost its extraordinary qualities. Yet “inspirational” is a word that finds its full meaning in the life of Kenlie Jackson.
I first met Kenlie when she was 5 years old, participating in her Aunt Christi and Uncle Chuck Langlois’ annual bikeathon to raise money for St. Jude’s Children's Hospital. Though she had been diagnosed with Synovial Sarcoma (a very rare cancer that attacks the tissue in joints) when she was only 2, Kenlie entered the bikeathon and finished her laps with a big grin on her face. She won a new bike that year, for raising the most donations. It would be the first of many such bikes.
“Even if she wasn’t feeling well, she could turn on that smile. She was unique like that,” shared her father Ken about Kenlie’s 9 year long battle against cancer, “She especially encouraged folks who were experiencing chemotherapy because she was so positive.” "She made a lasting impression on so many people," Jennifer reminisced, "They would meet her for just 5 minutes in a store and remember her."
Many visits to St. Jude’s in Memphis followed her diagnosis, as did many surgeries and chemotherapies. During that time, Kenlie, Ken, her mother Jennifer and brother Cullen became friends with many other families staying at the Ronald McDonald House there. One of her friends, Parker, passed away from cancer. Kenlie drew a big picture of her and Parker holding hands and walking in the grass for Parker’s mother. Ken and Jennifer remembered, “She was very creative with art, she loved to create!”
Kenlie also loved to work with ALSAC, the fundraising branch of St. Jude’s which creates their commercials and catalogues. They loved working with Kenlie with her bright smile and fighting spirit. “They would call when we were in Memphis and ask if she wanted to do some film and she loved that!” said Ken fondly, “She loved the camera. They wanted people to see her fight, her spunk.”
ALSAC did an advertisement featuring Kenlie and her friend Jaycee, who also was fighting cancer and was also from Central. They got to fly to Los Angeles to film it with Jimmy Kimmel. She also got to meet Garth Brooks in Nashville. “Jennifer and I wanted to give her a good life. All we ever wanted for her was to have a normal life,” stated Ken. Kenlie also bagged a deer at a hunting camp in Texas that is run by Woods & Water Outdoor Ministry. “it was our last night there. We had been enjoying home cooked meals there. Kenlie turned to me and said with a grin, ‘I guess this is my last homecooked meal for awhile!’” Ken smiled at the memory.
Kenlie was known for her sense of humor that would keep everyone in stitches. Once the family was given tickets to a Memphis Grizzlies basketball game. Kenlie was wearing a crocheted hat someone had made for her that looked like hair. After the first quarter, she took it off. Her dad questioned her, afraid she wasn’t feeling well. “No, Dad, I’m trying to get on the Jumbotron!” Kenlie replied.
At the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade a few years back, Kenlie and her dad had had no luck catching any throws. “Enough of this!” Kenlie said with determination, and pulled off the same crocheted hat. “I ended up having to get the truck. We had so many beads I couldn’t carry them all. The floats threw their best beads for her, everyone around us was picking up stuff to give her!” said Ken, “It was so touching.”
Kenlie was also known for her blunt honesty. In 2013, she underwent a knee replacement, but it took so long to heal that the joint remained stiff. Ken shared, “She was stuck with a stiff leg. She couldn’t ride her bike, it was hard for her to even get dressed.” The doctor recommended amputation, and the family had decided to go home and pray about the decision when Kenlie developed an infection in the joint. “I think God just answered our question,” Kenlie said to her parents. A few months after the surgery, she wanted to get a pedicure. She told her parents, “It’s ok, we’ll get it for half price!”
Kenlie lost her hard fought battle with cancer on July 13. As her father shared on Facebook, “We were with my precious daughter when she took her first breath, and we were with her when she took her last.” People from all over came to her wake at Greenoaks Funeral Home, including Ken’s high school friend who drove 400 miles, though she had never met Kenlie. Many of her nurses and caregivers at St. Jude’s made the trip from Memphis. Ken said with amazement, ”People drove that many miles to pay tribute to my sweet little angel.” Among them, Parker’s mother, who gave the eulogy for Kenlie.
Kenlie’s grandmother Jeanette Eisworth felt that Kenlie’s purpose here was to touch people. “It’s a good way to look at it,” Ken acknowledged, “If she helped people, that’s pretty amazing. I hope that people can take from her life to never give up, keep fighting. Don’t let this disease win. That is what she would want. “ "I am so very proud of her," Jennifer shared with all the love that only a parent can feel, "She would be happy to know that."
You can honor Kenlie’s memory with a donation to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital or the Ronald McDonald House in Memphis. And you can participate in the St. Jude’s Bikeathon when Kenlie’s Aunt Christi and Uncle Chuck put it on again next year.