Living for a dream

By Laura Bollin

An Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School student who has yet to set foot in his classroom this year was named the school's student of the month for January.

Henry Keller, 12, of Oak Lawn, won the award for acing a test on the Constitution. The seventh-grader has been out of school the entire 2012-13 year while undergoing treatment for bone cancer.

In his honor, Oak Lawn-Hometown is raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. This is hardly new territory for the school, which has been the top Make-A-Wish fundraiser in Illinois for the past eight years with $310,000 in the coffers. The school raised $3,672 at a recent staff/student volleyball tournament, and a portion of the money will go toward sending Henry to Australia at the conclusion of his treatment.

"I can't even express my gratitude toward them. They are making sure that Henry is part of the community still," said Henry's mother, Chris Keller. "Even though he can't come to school, he is a part of the school. I think it has helped his outlook to know that his friends are still there for him. They are thinking about him and they can't wait for him to come back."

Henry was diagnosed with bone cancer last August and has been homeschooled since. His mother said the family was surprised to learn of the diagnosis. Henry had been complaining of pain in his left leg for a few weeks over the summer, and a biopsy on his left tibia confirmed cancer was the cause.

"I thought it was growing pains," Keller said. "One night, he called me four or five times, and texted me, and told me his leg really hurt. We went to the doctor and got an X-ray done on Friday. On Saturday, we were on our way to Lake Geneva for a family weekend, and the doctor called us and told us we had to get him on crutches right away, because his leg couldn't bear weight."

The following Monday, Henry had an appointment at the Kaiser Center, the pediatric cancer institute at Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn. He later underwent surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to remove a four-inch tumor in his left tibia, and began chemotherapy at Hope.

"We were really in shock," his mother said. "He had no symptoms, and all of a sudden, he's got cancer. We didn't have time to really think about stuff."

Henry, who is constantly on the go, said the diagnosis kept him from school.

"I was pretty irritated, I was pretty mad," Henry said. "

Henry is in the midst of a 29-week chemotherapy treatment, and has 10 weeks left to go. Each four-hour treatment requires him to take a drug that helps his kidneys process the toxic chemicals being used to kill the cancer, and he is in the hospital for four days at a time.

"The light at the end of the tunnel is there," Keller said. "He should be done, we're praying, by April."

While undergoing treatment, Henry watches military documentaries on television or plays on his iPad - the latter a gift from Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School, which bought the iPad with money raised at a dress-down day in November. He enjoys visits from his friends, who come to his house once a week to hang out, and uses online video chat service Skype to participate in classes. His active lifestyle that includes playing baseball and floor hockey has been sidetracked, and he plans to get back into sports as soon as possible.

"My plans for after treatment is over in April is to play a bunch of sports and have fun," Henry said. "I play second base and left field for Oak Lawn baseball. What's getting me through is knowing that I'll be able to go to Australia. That's my wish. I want to go scuba diving, and fishing in the Great Barrier Reef."

In addition to his trip to Australia, another event is keeping Henry in high spirits - his "crutch-burying party."

"We have to find out when he doesn't need them anymore, right now he cannot walk and is still using them," Chris said. "Anyone will be able to come and toss a shovelful of dirt over the crutches. The Oak Lawn Fire Department has offered to come and help. They're going to crush it with the Jaws of Life, or run over the crutch with their fire truck. One of his grandparents' friends gave him a shovel with a ribbon on it to celebrate."

Joy Gallivan, a social worker at Oak Lawn-Hometown, has known Henry since he was a kindergartner at Sward School.

"He's my buddy," Gallivan said. "I have lunch with him once a week, at home or at the hospital. He's so excited. All he wants to do is come back to school."

District 123 helped fund the wish of another child - Abby Wujcik, an Oak Lawn resident and second-grader at Kolmar School. Abby and her family went to Hawaii, said Oak Lawn-Hometown eighth-grade studies teacher Sofia Georgelos.

"Things like this help kids build character," Georgelos said of raising money to help a fellow student. "It shows what good people they are."

Fellow teacher Teresa Loch said the Make-A-Wish fundraising lets kids "help other kids." The school has a trophy case in the hallway dedicated to Henry, with a t-shirt for the May 10 Walk-A-Thon that reads "Walk 4 Henry."

Six months after treatment is over - so possibly in October - Henry, his mother, his father, Tom, and his brother, Adam, 11, will board a plane for an Australian vacation. Henry is making do with his second wish - his first wish was a little bit bigger, said his mother.

"Make-A-Wish told him to dream big, so his first wish was to go to the moon," Chris said. "There are no flights there yet, so we couldn't do that."