Feature

A mother’s promise, a daughter’s legacy

It started with a toothache, but that was just the first punch that cancer threw at Kennedy Parker in 2016.

Instead of withdrawing and feeling sorry for herself, the 21-year-old college student fought back. With unwavering support from her mom, Darnesha Evans, her sister Kyah, and dozens of others, Kennedy’s mission to defeat cancer and comfort others took shape.

Kennedy started with small — but meaningful — gestures like providing gift cards for coffee to health professionals and stuffed animals for children in the hospital rooms surrounding hers. One kindness led to another, and with her mom at her side, Project Kennedy was born.

Kennedy didn’t live to see her organization grow into the force for good it has become — she died July 2, 2020, just 17 days short of her 25th birthday — but she continues to be a gentle voice in her mother’s ear, encouraging her to keep going.

Darnesha Evans with daughter Kennedy during one of many hospital stays during Kennedy’s battle against cancer. (Provided photo)

“She [Kennedy] told me on her deathbed that she wanted the organization to thrive. I also found a piece of paper with Kennedy’s New Year’s wish on it, but I didn’t read it until she passed. It said: ‘I want my organization to flourish.’ I am now dedicated to making that happen,” Evans said.

Kennedy’s story

When that toothache hit Kennedy M. Parker in August of 2016, “Her dentist, Dr. Dan Strobel, sent her to an oral surgeon who pulled all four of her wisdom teeth just to ‘get it out of the way.’” Evans said. “But from August to November, the pain wouldn’t stop. Finally, Kennedy’s college roommate called me and said Kennedy was crying and missing classes because of the pain.”

Evans took Kennedy back to Strobel, who took more X-rays and didn’t like what he saw. Suspecting the pain was due to infection, he arranged for Kennedy to be admitted to Northwestern Memorial Hospital the next day. She then began a long series of tests, treatments and surgeries that finally yielded answers — she had Ewing Sarcoma, a rare cancer that affects the bones and soft tissue.

Kennedy Parker

Several rounds of chemotherapy followed, and when the tumor had shrunk enough, the doctors called on University of Illinois-Chicago surgeon Dr. Michael Markiewicz to remove cancer-infected bone from Kennedy’s jaw and replace it with bone from her fibula.

“He told me I would think he was crazy when he suggested that operation — and I did at first — but the surgery was a success,” Evans said.

Before and after the surgery, Kennedy spent many hours walking the hospital halls to remain active and relieve boredom. On her walks she noticed kids and adults sitting in their hospital rooms — alone — day after day. She realized that other people didn’t have anywhere near the support she had, and she wanted to change that. She began to fundraise online from her hospital bed through Facebook and Instagram.

“She used what she collected to give $5 Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Subway gift cards to her nurses and doctors,” Evans said. “Then she began to acquire Teddy bears and gave them to hospitalized kids.”
Kennedy also wanted people to see how she was pushing back on cancer, so she started posting real-time videos of her treatment. “She cut off her hair online, had chemo online, and talked to her followers about what was happening to her,” Evans said.

Mother and daughter even published a book titled “Cancer Picked the Wrong Chick,” a collection of candid photos and comments documenting Kennedy’s treatment. “I have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have me” was Kennedy’s mantra, and for a while, she was declared cancer-free. It looked like she was going
to come out the winner.

In 2019, mother and daughter launched Project Kennedy, a non-profit whose mission is to “. . . raise awareness and provide services to cancer patients, their families, and communities. We are devoted to giving moral support to help strengthen and encourage those affected by cancer.”

Project Kennedy partnered with several donors, among them Destiny Watson, founder and CEO of You Matter 2, a youth development organization serving 6th-12th graders in the South Suburbs. Ironically, Kennedy had been Destiny’s cheer coach at James Hart Junior High, and both graduated from Homewood-Flossmoor High School just a few years apart.

Every Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, You Matter 2 gathers volunteers to spend time making tied “comfort” blankets, which they donate to worthy causes. That year, You Matter 2 donated their finished blankets to Project Kennedy, and mother and daughter added a personal touch to each blanket by having each blanket embroidered with “Love Always, Project Kennedy” at Homewood’s Nix Nax, which has since become a Project Kennedy partner.

As of April 13, Project Kennedy volunteers are not just embellishing and distributing the blankets, they also are making them from scratch, thanks to a $5,000 grant from SBB Research Group, a non-profit that supports over 63 charitable organizations addressing human service and education.

“We take the blankets to the hospitals we partner with — UIC, Rush Children’s, Advocate Children’s Keyser Family Pediatric Cancer Center, and Lurie Children’s Hospital,” Evans said. “We also sent blankets to 14 states in 2023.”

Kennedy’s Legacy

Toward the end of 2019, Project Kennedy was going strong. Then COVID hit and Kennedy’s cancer returned. This time her sarcoma had metastasized to her arm and back. This time it was Stage 4. Kennedy underwent 20 rounds of radiation and two blood transfusions, all the while expanding the distribution of blankets, bears, Easter baskets and other self-care items. With her mom, she even drew up plans for an annual fundraiser walk and called it “Walking for a Friend.”

Kennedy was a cheerleader at Western
Illinois University at the time of her
initial cancer diagnosis.
(Provided photo)

“Kennedy always wanted to do a walk, but she didn’t make it,” Evans said. “I made sure we did one the year she passed. That was our first.”

“This year is the fifth anniversary of Project Kennedy, so we’re trying to do everything a little bigger,” Evans said. “We’re a non-profit and we’re not that big yet, so we struggle with funding, but we are determined. Our walk is scheduled for Aug. 10 and it’s in Homewood.

“We also are planning the annual blood drive in February 2025, an event at the Copper Still, and a “Painting for a Friend” event at Art 4 Soul June 29. Art 4 Soul is supplying us with cancer ribbon ceramics to paint.”

By June 2020, despite intense treatment, Kennedy’s cancer had spread to her liver. She stopped eating and once again was hospitalized. She didn’t have the energy to document her struggle as she had during the first bout with cancer, and she didn’t want to. “All she wanted was to survive,” Evans said.

“Because of COVID, they put us in a room in the children’s section. It was just me and her the whole time,” Evans said. On day five in the hospital, the gravity of Kennedy’s condition was confirmed. Her life was coming to an end.

Evans recalls that on day 14 in the hospital, “Kennedy woke up and said, ‘Mom, come here.’ I sat on the side of her bed, and she looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I’m OK, but I need you to be OK.’ The next day, she woke up and said, ‘Mom, I’m tired.’ I got into bed with her and just held her. When I released her, she passed.”

Epilogue

Evans did the eulogy at her daughter’s funeral, which surprised many. “I told them about the last 15 days of her life because no one heard from us once we went in to get a routine scan. She shared a lot with me in those last 15 days. We just never came home.”

Four years after Kennedy’s death, her organization is stronger than ever. Evans’ friend and former co-worker Ashley Carrington has joined Project Kennedy as its president/program director while Evans acts as executive director/co-founder.

Hundreds of people have been touched by Kennedy’s healing love and Carrington has plans to expand the organization’s reach.

“Kennedy did so many things to help people in her short life. She was an inspiration. I believe people are beginning to understand that,” Carrington said.

Coming soon: Project Kennedy in Action.
For more information on Project Kennedy, visit www.projectkennedy.com.

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