March

Hooked | Alvernia Magazine

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This is a fish story, although it’s really not about fish. It’s about people helping people. And it’s about courage, the kind displayed by a 5-year-old boy who taught me more about what it means to be courageous than I could have ever imagined.

But back to fishing. I love to fish. I’ve been doing it since I can remember, since my dad first taught me how to bait a hook. So when I got word about a trip being organized last August to Kentucky’s Taylorsville Lake State Park, it didn’t take long for me to sign up.

But this wasn’t the usual angling excursion with family or buddies. In fact, it was with a group I had never even met before we gathered that hot August afternoon. But it was a fishing trip I will remember forever, and not for the one that got away.

Special family, special occasion
On Feb. 9, 2012, 3-year-old Jackson Mitchum was diagnosed with a rare, incurable pediatric brain cancer called pilomyxoid astrocytoma. On the very next day, he underwent emergency surgery to remove 75 percent of his tumor. By April it had grown back.

He started chemo that May. For the next two years, Jackson endured seven different therapies. His family and grandparents dropped everything and moved to Kentucky to be closer to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where Jackson is receiving treatment.

Although Jackson has lost sight in one eye and has only partial vision in the other, he hasn’t lost his resilient spirit or instinctual playfulness. Nor has his 8-year-old brother, Caleb who is battling his own health issues, including Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD. But he’s still Jackson’s big brother and plays the role to perfection.

For sure, the two young boys have dealt with their share of challenges. Yet they still have dreams and wishes, and in August, thanks to the One Wish Foundation (OWF), the pair’s hopes of going fishing, swimming and camping with their family became a joy-filled reality with the trip to Taylorsville Lake State Park.

As a board member, I’m no stranger to OWF. It was founded in March 2011 by my best friend, Jarrod Renninger, to introduce children with life-altering medical or social conditions to the outdoors by granting “One Wish.” This “One Wish” can be anything associated with the outdoors — fishing, camping, hunting, four-wheeling, rafting or any outdoor-related adventure.

Fishing with good friends
By the time Jackson and Caleb got to Taylorsville Lake, their excitement was contagious and their smiles were infectious. Jackson came over and gave me a hug and I knew right then and there this was going to be a special time. I was not to be disappointed.
It didn’t take long for the crew to get in gear. The boys were soon in the boat, laughing, catching enough striped bass to fill a cooler. They even threw some back to catch on another day!

But I couldn’t help notice that Jackson struggled at times. He didn’t fish as much as he would have liked because he was tired. Sometimes we had to carry him because his legs hurt so bad, a side effect of his cancer treatments. His arms would hurt, too from holding the fishing rod. No matter what we did, he was always uncomfortable.

Once on the boat his temperature spiked, another treatment side effect. Our fishing guide, Chino Ross, sat on the boat’s floor, icing Jackson and fanning him until he cooled and fell asleep.

Later it dawned on me: Jackson lives every second of every day like that. He doesn’t have any easy days. They are all hard, but he doesn’t ever give in. He fights. He pushes. Sure, the sickness gets to him, but his courage in battling his cancer is something I admire and will remember. Even at age 5, he is a teacher.

Time to reflect
I can’t look at Caleb and Jackson without seeing my own kids — Jack, 15, Ashley, 13, and Luke 9. They’re all happy, healthy and great to be with. Together with my wife, Kelly, we feel so rich and blessed. Most who know or have met my kids comment how wonderful they are, and we beam with pride. Yet we are so much like the Mitchum family. And I think about how easily our two roles could have been reversed. I wonder why them, why not us?

I can’t help but feel humbled. I can’t help but wonder how I would deal with what the Mitchums are going through. In my career, I have met many people and many families who don’t have my same life situation and circumstances, whether it is because of an illness, economic hardship or physical abuse.

So when I hear about those who are not as fortunate, it pulls at my heart. I am instantly reminded of my dad, Jack and the example he left me. It has led Kelly and me to do whatever we can to help others.

Back to the trip/forever changed
That second evening of the trip, the entire group was hosted by Chino Ross and his wife, Karen, at a fish fry that left us all amazed. Country music artist T.J. Bebb was on hand to perform that evening, and we listened to his hit songs as well as a special treat, an original composition, the One Wish song.

There wasn’t a dry eye to be found that night, knowing we were celebrating good times together and praying for our new buddy Jackson as he fought cancer.

That August journey was a fishing trip to remember and a life-changing weekend for all involved. How could I ever be the same after being part witness, part participant to such an occasion? In the end, we accomplished our mission: we provided the Mitchum family with a break — time away when they didn’t have to think about disease or hospital and could enjoy time with those they love. For the boys, we provided them with a memory to carry with them forever.

Yet I wonder if I am the one who got the gift that weekend. I met a remarkably courageous family during those few days. They are now my friends. If they needed my help, I would be out there tomorrow.

As for Jackson, I am hooked. I would do anything for him. His spirit is engrained in me. He is now one of mine.

John McCloskey is Alvernia’s vice president of enrollment management. Learn more about the One Wish Foundation at onewishfoundation.org.

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