Turning Pain into Purpose

How Friar alumni are changing the face of cancer support with buddhi.

By alumna guest blogger Kathleen Brown ’00

Starting a new school without many friends is rough. Doing it while 14 years old and in cancer treatment out of state was less than ideal. For the first four months at Fenwick, I was back and forth between Chicago and Memphis — where St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is based — receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a rare form of bone cancer.

Meanwhile, I tried to fit in with my new classmates and keep my illness, wig and scars under wraps, somewhat unsuccessfully. It helped having an older brother (Kevin Brown ’98*) there to look out for me, but ultimately until I started to open up about what I was going through, it was challenging for me to make genuine connections and begin to heal. It was in the Fenwick cafeteria where I told new friends about my illness, and in the women’s bathroom adjacent where I exposed my wig and began to see that, although I was different in some ways, we were all going through something. 

As I looked forward to my final chemotherapy treatment in early December freshman year — ready to put cancer behind me — I was unprepared for the mental-health crisis compounded by the loss of my guardian angel, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, to a cancer recurrence two weeks before. 

I was fortunate enough to meet Cardinal Bernardin at the start of my cancer journey, and we became pen pals; he was one of the only people I felt comfortable opening up to about my real feelings. It felt like “my friend Joe” and I understood each other.

Several months into my treatment protocol, while at the local children’s hospital where we met, I developed a staph infection that eventually sent my body into septic shock. Without much hope of my survival, my parents asked him to perform the Anointing of the Sick. Miraculously, my vitals stabilized and they were able to transfer my care to St. Jude, where we stayed connected through letters and phone calls. (This was before the days of the Internet, cell phones and social media!) Although I didn’t have any friends my age in cancer treatment, it was comforting to know that he had been through it and, as a survivor, did so much to support others. 

When I learned of his passing on November 14th, the grief and loss I felt was suffocating. Until then, as a naive teenager, cancer had been an inconvenience; a temporary setback. I could not comprehend how the disease could take this incredible man’s life and spare my own. While my family and friends prepared to celebrate the end of my treatment and Christmas at home, I put on a brave face — and quietly plotted to end my life.

“I … quietly plotted to end my life.”

Kathleen Brown

Survivor’s guilt is one of the many mental-health side effects that cancer patients experience and are ill-equipped to manage on their own. If I expressed how I really felt — sad, scared sh!tless, angry, anxious — how would it make my loved ones feel? For so many of us, it feels like we’re the only one in pain, but suffering is part of the shared human experience. 

I credit my family, friends and teachers at Fenwick, and social activities I engaged in (Student Council, softball, basketball, Campus Ministry and Kairos) for getting me through my darkest days. Once I began to share, the world seemed to open up, and I got more comfortable being myself, scars and all. After I was declared “cancer-free,” I got involved in giving back to the community, through a variety of fundraising activities for St. Jude and as a mentor to many other patients. As a public speaker, volunteer, event organizer and board member, I found fulfillment in serving others, and living Fenwick values to lead, achieve and serve. Despite finding success in advertising sales for over a decade with Comcast and Disney/ESPN, I yearned to do more with St. Jude and accepted a fundraising leadership position to work for a fellow Friar (Jenny DiBenedetto-McKenna ’97) in 2014, where I spent five years in field event and corporate development — a true dream job.

During my time fundraising for St. Jude, I got to meet thousands of people impacted by cancer. With our shared experience; I learned how many were also putting on a brave face, quietly suffering in silence while their friends and family had no idea about their private struggles. On nights and weekends, I sketched ideas of a “pipe dream” business plan for a platform that would bridge the divide between patients and well-intentioned supporters; where patients in treatment and recovery could connect with each other in an online community with events and resources that felt more fun and upbeat — like a place you wanted to go back to. And users would be empowered to share how they were feeling with a social tool, complete with helpful prompts for family and friends to support them with love notes or wellness wallet funds that could be redeemed for things like a meditation app or a therapy session.

Photo taken of buddhi members by Enas Siddiqi, July 2019.

I was reminded about the gift of wellness in January 2019, when results from a secondary cancer biopsy came back clear of disease, and decided to leave my job at St. Jude and go all-in to make buddhi (“to be awake”) a reality, because when it comes to coping with cancer, we could all use a bud. After months of research and development, I raised capital (from a number of Friar alumni!) to build the platform and make strategic hires to launch in October 2020, with the first being our Community Director, who also happens to be my sister, Meagan Brown ’07

Alumni the Brown sisters.

While we are just getting started, with social and marketplace features coming in the first quarter of 2021, buddhi has already made a big impact in the lives of thousands of cancer thrivers and supporters. None of it would be possible if not for support from the Fenwick community and the values instilled in us to lead with service. I have audacious goals for what buddhi can accomplish, because the need is both great and urgent, given compounded isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. No one should have to go through cancer alone, and I am reminded daily of the power of community to heal.

If you’d like to join our community or be part of our mission, please visit hibuddhi.com or drop me a line: kathleen@hibuddhi.com.

READ MORE ABOUT THE FENWICK – ST. JUDE CONNECTION.

* Brian ’95, Kevin ’98, Kathleen ’00 and Meagan Brown ’07 are the children of Mary Kay and Fenwick alumnus/Hall of Famer Pete Brown ’71, whose father, Roger, was a proud member of the Friars’ Class of 1946.

86 Years of ‘Passing the Hat’ for Friars in Need

For students who’ve lost a parent during high school, the Fenwick Fathers’ Club has always extended a helping hand.

When 91-year-old Bernard “Barney” Rodden ’39 passed away four years ago, the World War II veteran and Fenwick alumnus’ family asked that memorials be directed to Fenwick High School’s Fathers’ Club Tuition Continuation Fund. Established in 1932, the fund covers tuition for students who have lost a parent while at Fenwick.

Imagine attending high school and having your father or mother die. Sadly, such family tragedy has struck hundreds of Fenwick students over the years and, for 86 years and counting, the Fenwick Fathers’ Club has been here to help.

Senior Colleen Stephany’s mother passed away in 2016. Ms. Stephany told her story to the Fenwick picnic audience last month.

Current Fenwick senior Colleen Stephany ’19 knows firsthand the pain and tragedy of losing a parent. Her mother, Carol O’Neill, passed away two years ago at the age of 54. When Ms. Stephany spoke at the Freshman Family Picnic last month, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house:

Hi, I’m Colleen Stephany, an incoming senior. Mr. Sullivan, the president of the Fathers’ Club reached out and asked if I could share with you all how the club has impacted me. [Editor’s note: Frank Sullivan ’86 is a Fenwick Dad.] I couldn’t be happier to be standing here in front of you.

I was raised in River Forest with my three siblings, my single mom, and an abundance of extended family who were always around. My own father wasn’t really in the picture since before I started at St. Luke, so my mom began to sacrifice tremendously to keep my siblings and me in Catholic schools very early, taking jobs in the area and sacrificing her own personal luxuries to guarantee us the warm, welcoming communities [that] Catholic schools provide.

In the fall of my 5th grade year she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer, causing her to step down from her current job. My grandparents and extended family were phenomenal in helping cover our fees but tuition for four kids in grade school, high school and college was always just so difficult. As the amounts kept rising, people from all areas, especially Fenwick, swooped in to help without ever making us feel like charity or below everyone else, which I believe is one of their most valuable attributes. My mother always strived to keep our lives as normal as possible, but when she couldn’t on her own, the Fathers’ Club never failed to help her achieve that normalcy. As I got older and understood the situation we were in, and how my mother and grandparents’ health was worsening, I began to worry on where I’d end up — but my Mom was always so confident with Fenwick.

I didn’t understand because I thought it’d be more of a burden on her than a public high school, but now I can see her logic clearly. She wanted me to have support and a family as strong as Fenwick High School. She was confident the Fathers’ Club, Father Peddicord and the rest of the administration would take care of me, and she was exactly right. I will never forget the embrace I got after losing my Mom my sophomore year, and the fact that this was the first place I wanted to go afterwards. I think this speaks volumes of Fenwick. The love the Fathers’ Club, administration and school showed our family surpassed any type of financial help they could ever give.

People may just see it as a group who fund-raises to make improvements to the school or their events, but that’s not the Fathers’ Club at all. They continually work to maintain and strengthen the community and love of Fenwick for every person who walks through the doors. Parents, students, faculty and alumni are all in the minds of the Fathers’ Club and the administration, and I am eternally grateful I was able to feel the love of Fenwick. So on behalf of my Mom, my siblings and my whole family, I’d love to thank them for allowing me to have the honor of graduating from here and making me always feel at home at Fenwick.

Continue reading “86 Years of ‘Passing the Hat’ for Friars in Need”

Found Classroom, Found Community

What is ‘social capital,’ and how do we measure it?

By Gerald F. Lordan, O.P., Ph.D., Social Studies Teacher and Faculty Mentor

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, was a novelist and Free French Army aviator lost missing in action in 1944 during World War II.  He is paraphrased to have said, “The most important things in life are invisible and impossible to measure.”

For many years this statement applied to the benefits of Catholic education.  A recent book, Lost Classroom, Lost Community by Margaret Brining and Nicole Stelle Garnett, helps to quantify the value of Catholic education to the community.  The authors, both of whom are Notre Dame University Law School professors, studied demographic, educational and criminal statistics in Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. They found a close connection between the presence of a Catholic school and community social capital.  This connection can have a positive impact not only on the life of the community as a whole but also on the lives of the individuals within that community.

Social capital can be defined as the social networks and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness shared by members of a community with one another.  Brining and Garnett found high levels of social capital among the administrators, teachers, parents and students of Catholic schools.  Social capital can be considered a factor of production similar to physical, financial and human capital.  According to Brining and Garnett, social capital can be viewed as something that helps to produce a better society, less crime, less disorder and more trust.  When Catholic schools are closed in a community, the community suffers.  Many people who support Catholic education sense these findings intuitively.  Saint-Exupery to the contrary, notwithstanding, Brining and Garnett help to quantify those intuitions. Continue reading “Found Classroom, Found Community”

Fenwick’s Vision Is Keen and Full of Life

Guided by Jesus, our brother, and St. Thomas Aquinas, our students’ minds want to know and their wills want to love.

By Fr. Richard LaPata, O.P., President Emeritus of Fenwick High School

Father LaPata is a 1950 graduate of Fenwick.

Hardly a day goes by when some institution, business, or government isn’t asked to share its “vision.” Fenwick is no different. It is important that our school be called upon to offer its vision to the public. The only difference is that we have a theological vision. And what exactly is it?

First of all, the Gospel tells us that Jesus has come to bring life and to bring it more abundantly. Because Fenwick has as its mission to continue the ministry of Jesus, it is our responsibility to bring not only “life,” but abundant life to our students. How do we as an educational institution do that? In other words, how do we become life-giving?

Well, St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that human life consists in an intellect and a free will and in the exercise of these faculties. It is in the development and use of the mind to know and a will to love that we experience our human life. God’s grace, building and supporting these powers, is able to bring it abundantly. And so the vision we have of Fenwick is its ability to actualize to the fullest every student’s ability to know and love, always supported by an underlying Christian Faith.

Do we fully succeed at every moment to realize this vision in each student? Perhaps there may be times when we fall short, but the vision is always there and will always remain.

88 Years of Community at Fenwick

‘No One Gets to Heaven Alone’

By Father Richard LaPata, O.P. ’50, President Emeritus (1998-2007) of Fenwick High School

Fr. Dick LaPata serves as Assistant Manager to the Fenwick Fund, formerly known as the Dooley Fund.

When Fenwick was founded in 1929, the founding Friars wished to endow their new school with qualities that were special and important to them. There were certain attributes of the Dominican Order that these Friars wanted their students to embrace. These values were considered the pillars of the Order; they were the building blocks that sustained and gave direction to all Dominicans. These “building blocks” or “pillars” became the foundation of Fenwick High School and are passed on to its students even today. They are prayer, study, community  and preaching (or service).

Today, I would simply like to make a few comments regarding the idea of “community” here at our school. We at Fenwick are committed to become a place where a sense of community is felt by faculty, students, parents, alumni and friends. Here, for example, friendships are nourished. As an alumnus from the Class of 1950, I can say that some of my very best and long-lived friendships were forged here as a student so many years ago.

Beyond the forming of friendships, we want our students to have a sense of belonging to one another while they are in school. This increases our students’ care and respect for one another, thus diminishing incidents of meanness and bullying for which teenagers are often criticized.

Fenwick’s encouraging of a sense of community promotes a spirit of cooperation as students engage in the many activities offered by our school. These include teamwork in sports, in outreach to those in need, in spiritual and religious events such as retreats.

Inculcating the value of community in our students is also based on our belief in what Jesus proclaimed, namely the “kingdom of God.” Jesus gathers us into a society, a community based on our belief in God, to make this world a better place together and to build, finally, the kingdom in heaven. I might add as emphasis that no one gets to heaven alone. It takes a community to get to our final home.