Written by Sharon L. Filkins
Oak Lawn resident Abby Wujcik, 8, died from a pediatric tumor in 2013. A benefit was held in her memory Saturday to raise awareness and help fund research.
On a bright, sunny Saturday, hundreds of people gathered at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School for the first “Live Like Abby Family Fest” in honor of Abby Wujcik, an 8-year-old Oak Lawn resident who lost her fight against a pedriatic tumor in 2013.
The event was organized to raise funds for the Live Like Abby group, a partner of the John McNicholas Brain Tumor Foundation (JMBTF), whose mission is to improve treatments and ultimately find a cure for brain cancer in children. The second part of the event was to focus on the activities on Saturday to remember Abby, whose family, friends and classmates said was very special.
More than 20 tents and play stations were set up for kids of all ages, as well as a number of bounce houses. Karate demonstrations were available along with a pie-in-the-face throwing event. Admission was free, but tickets were purchased to play the games and purchase food.
Abby’s father, Kevin Wujcik, said he and his wife, Kristyn, wanted the Fest to be family-oriented because they wanted to focus on Abby’s friends, classmates and cousins.
“They have all been involved in preparation of the event. We held a paint night, and the kids painted all the signs for the different stations at the Fest,” said Kevin. “The signs were done in purple and yellow, which were Abby’s favorite colors.”
He stated that preparing for the Fest had been emotionally hard for the family.
“We remain close to parents of her classmates and keep in touch with them. It is a great comfort for all of us,” said Wujcik. “We set up a Live Like Abby Facebook page and it has 1,000 members. It is a very supportive group. We know we have a lot of people behind us.”
Among those attending the Fest were two of Abby’s former classmates, Elena Leon, 12, and Annalisa Barajas, 11. They shared fond memories of their friend.
“Abby was the first friend I made in first grade. I was new to the school and Abby came up to me on the playground and introduced herself,” said Leon. “We became instant friends. She was always happy and smiling. When she was diagnosed she was very strong. She didn’t worry or fret about her chemo. She always just wanted to get her work done.”
“She wanted us to treat her normally, not like anything was wrong,” said Barajas. “She didn’t want us to treat her any differently because she had cancer. She concentrated on her school work, it was very important to her. She was always fun to be around. I sat with her at lunch and we were always talking through ‘chew-time’ a period of 10 minutes or so when we were supposed to be quiet and eating our food.”
Both girls remembered a gym period in which the gym teacher played Justin Bieber’s songs for the whole period because he was Abby’s favorite singer.
Leon related a second touching moment in gym when the teacher had everyone sit in a circle and Abby came in and entertained them by doing several “splits” in a little gymnastic routine.
Abby’s story began in May, 2012, when the school nurse phoned her mother and informed her that the 6-year-old was having difficulty with her right hand in using scissors in the classroom. She suggested that they mention it to the doctor the next time they had an appointment.
Kristyn immediately made an appointment. The pediatrician ordered an MRI. There was no way the young family was prepared for the results.
“It was like being kicked in the stomach,” said Kevin. “The MRI revealed that Abby had a Stage 4 Glioblastoma brain tumor. It is the worst kind of brain cancer you can have. “
“We knew what we were up against and the possibility of the outcome. Incredibly, our very close friends had just recently lost their 7-year-old son, Danny Host, to the very same cancer. He and Abby had been good friends, always playing together when we visited. We even shared the same pediatrician and we just could not believe that these two little friends would have this same terrible disease,” he added.
There is no known cause of the pediatric cancer, which can strike children from newborn to teenagers and there is no cure at this time.
The Wujciks were up front with Abby, who they described as a very bright, mature child for her age.
“She was an ‘old soul,’ “said Kristyn. “We asked her if she wanted to fight this, and she replied, ‘Yes, I am going to fight.’”
And fight she did. In her 15-month battle, she endured 115 chemotherapy sessions, 40 clinic visits, 33 radiation treatments, over 30 days in the hospital, and two surgeries before she lost her fight, just days after her 8th birthday in 2013.
Her journey was marked with a chain of “Beads of Courage,” which was on display at the Fest. It is a colorful collection of beads marking each treatment, surgery and hospital stay. It is 17 feet long with 460 beads.
Kevin’s eyes filled with tears as he displayed the beads during an earlier interview. “Looking back, these beads help the family remember what each one represents, what she went through during those days and weeks.”
Early on, the family decided they would handle this situation together, as a family. “We wanted to make sure we lived life to the fullest during the time she had left and we were blessed to be able to do that,” said Kevin.
He said the family traveled to Hawaii with Abby through the Make a Wish Foundation and were able to meet Bieber.
“We went to Disney World and saw the Blue Man Group. We cherish those wonderful family memories,” said Kevin.
It was after the passing of Abby that the JMBTF reached out to the Wujcik family and asked Kevin to serve on the Foundation’s Board. He was later encouraged to start a “Live Like Abby” branch.
“It is hard doing this, but we know we are making a difference. There are only a few degrees of separation among families who have suffered a tragic loss like this, losing a young child. We know each other’s pain. It is our hope that working together we can raise awareness of this terrible disease and provide the funding needed for research, clinical trials, improved drugs and treatments, he said.
A highlight of the Abby Fest was a presentation by Dr. Rishl Lulla, from Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. He explained that he was not the doctor who had treated Abby Wujcik but he had treated John McNicholas, who died from a malignant brain tumor four years ago, at age 15, just 10 months after his diagnosis.
For John’s parents, Ed and Amy McNicholas, the death of their son from pediatric brain cancer was the catalyst for the founding of the John McNicholas Brain Tumor Foundation, whose goal is to raise awareness and funds for research into the devastating disease.
“When we began this terrible journey with our son, we were unaware of the lack of funding and research into improving treatments for these young victims,” said Amy. “We knew we had to do something, but we couldn’t do it alone. It is the mission of the Foundation to improve treatments, which haven’t changed in the last 30 or 40 years and ultimately we hope a cure will be found for brain cancer in children.”
The JMBT Foundation is now the umbrella organization for four branches: Live Like Abby, Live Like John, Live Like Leah and Live Like Finn. “The name of each group is significant, as we want people to celebrate the lives of these children and to keep their memories alive. Their lives were more important than the disease,” said Lulla.
“It is rare today that we can give parents hope, once the diagnosis is made. That is why it is critical that funding is diverted to research for pediatric brain cancer. It is humbling to see so many people gathered here today to support Abby’s family and this cause with this fundraising event,” added Lulla.
He added, “Events like today remind us of the importance of community and collaboration in raising funds for the research needed for pediatric brain cancer. Sadly, there are virtually no funds for research from federal sources. Only four percent of funds go to all pediatric cancers. That is why private funding is so important.”
According to a press release, the JMPBTF and its partners donated $500,000 to fund a two-year collaborative effort to research how brain tumors grow, with the hope of using that information to recommend new treatments. With events similar to the Live Like Abby Fest, the Foundation hopes to donate an additional $500,000 in the coming years.
“For further information on the Live Like Abby group and the John McNicholas Brain Tumor Foundation fundraising efforts and how to contribute, visit www.livelikeabby.org.