Childhood cancer hits St. Clair Shores school hard, and community responds

A Dominican sister talks with students at St. Isaac Jogues School in St. Clair Shores in early October. The school of fewer that 200 students has at least five families who have been affected by childhood cancer, a sobering reality that has led the school to host fundraisers, assemblies and outreach events to support research and awareness. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic) 

Devastating diagnosis leads parents of survivor to reach out in love to raise funds, awareness

ST. CLAIR SHORES — Jeff and Lori Konal are survivors of some of the worst news a parent can receive. When their oldest son, Eyan, was 2 and a half, he was diagnosed with cancer. 

“The unfortunate reality is that this can happen to anyone at any time,” Jeff Konal said.

According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, approximately 1 in 285 children in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday. Cancer is the most common cause of death by disease for children in the United States.

The Konals count themselves blessed because they were able to see the top specialist in the world for their son’s treatment. During this time, they met many other families in heartbreaking situations.

“We have met so many in our journey who have experienced the unthinkable loss of a child,” Jeff Konal said. “We have also witnessed families who have experienced great hardships with being able to secure the proper treatment, lack of suitable insurance, trying to raise their other children while going through their ordeal and the struggle to overcome financial hardships.”

Eyan Konal, a student at St. Isaac Jogues School in St. Clair Shores, was diagnosed with cancer when he was 2 years old, say his parents, Jeff and Lori Konal. Now 14, Eyan is cancer-free, but his family continues to raise funds and awareness with the help of the school community. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Konal)

Several of those families belong to St. Isaac Jogues Parish and school in St. Clair Shores, where the Konals are now parishioners. 

The school, which has fewer than 200 students, has had at least five families who have been affected by a battle against childhood cancer throughout its 62-year history — well above the national average, said Sr. Mary Jordan, OP, the school's marketing director.

Jeff Konal serves as the head football coach for St. Isaac Jogues' CYO football team, which has been active in supporting research to fight childhood cancer and supporting those affected by it.

Konal said after the family's experience, they wanted to do something to spread awareness, and the parish was the natural place to start.

“The administration and staff at St. Isaac were aware of our situation and were always there to lend prayer and support,” Konal said. 

He said the experience has challenged each member of the family to place their trust in God like never before.

“It's made us all different people,” Konal said. “We've always taken it as God's challenge to us: are you going to bail on me or are you going to stay faithful? This is our way of thanking the Lord for our blessings."

They started by selling t-shirts. Five years ago, the family started a “mushball” team (a variation of softball) that plays in St. Isaac Jogues’ summer mushball tournament. The league then began to host special “Childhood Cancer Awareness Games” every season, in which the teams wore gold jerseys and the Konals passed out information and sold baked goods.

St. Isaac Jogues CYO football players wear yellow ribbons to support childhood cancer research. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Konal)
Dior, a sixth-grade student at St. Isaac Jogues, wears a yellow ribbon to support her classmates with cancer during a school-wide awareness day on Sept. 20. (Photo courtesy of St. Isaac Jogues School)

The events have continued to grow. In 2017, a group from the parish raised $9,000 for childhood cancer research, and 15 of the school's CYO football players shaved their heads in solidarity with children who have lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatments.

“I tell the boys every year: you don't have to go out there and win a game for anybody; I just want you to pray for the children who would give anything to be on that field with you, but are in a hospital room,” Konal said. “Be thankful and honor their struggles by giving a good effort, by being a team player. Be grateful and pray for them, and maybe one day they can step out on the field, too.”

This year, the school hosted its first Childhood Cancer Awareness Day on Sept. 20 to raise donations for Band of Parents, a grassroots nonprofit that funds research and clinical trials for neuroblastoma. Students and faculty wore gold ribbons and attended a special pep rally complete with prayers and a halftime show performed by 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.

Sr. Catherine Marie Compton, OP, St. Isaac Jogues' principal, said she was proud of the way the school's students stepped up for those in need.

“It means a lot to our children to be able to impact kids in need, and we as adults need to facilitate that,” Sr. Catherine Marie said.

Character education is a major component of the curriculum at St. Isaac Jogues, and letting the students participate in childhood cancer awareness events gives them an opportunity to turn classroom lessons into lifelong practices.

“When we give our kids opportunities to serve one another in a bigger, more natural way, that’s when virtue becomes habit. That’s how our kids become the leaders we want them to be,” Sr. Catherine Marie said. “This is what’s so great about Catholic education.”

“Our children learn from day one that God has an infinite and personal love for them; that He desires great things for their lives,” she added. “Our kids are empowered on a daily basis to live this reality in the way they pray and treat one another."

Today, Eyan is a healthy 14-year-old. And while the Konals said they are grateful for any positive impact their story might have, Lori Konal said she hopes their efforts can also bring hope to other families who have received a diagnosis.

“Every dollar helps, and no matter how big or small (a parish or school's) events are, the more people become involved, collectively, the impact will be felt by these children and their families,” Lori Konal said.

Some material in this article was adapted from a submission given to Detroit Catholic by Sr. Mary Jordan, OP. 

Clarification: St. Isaac Jogues School has had five families throughout its 62-year history affected by childhood cancer. An earlier version of this article erroneously implied it currently has five families affected.