Cornell women adopt 'cancer family'

This past year the women of Kappa Theta have learned what life is like for a Mount Vernon family whose 6-year-old has leukemia. The Thetas adopted the Bevan Johnson family, providing babysitting, yard work, painting, cleaning, and even dog-washing.

Every Wednesday members show up at the house and ask what they need to do. Along the way, they have learned about the impact of leukemia on Rian, her parents, and her three siblings, ages 14, 4, and 2.

“I’ve been amazed at how giving they are of their time, and at their never-ending energy. They’ve given me freedom without guilt, the freedom to know that it’s OK to wash the laundry and just put it in a pile and go hang out with the kids,” said Angela Johnson, Rian’s mother. “We can just pick up the phone and know someone’s going to be there for us. That’s what I wish every cancer family had.”

The group’s vice president, senior Brittany VanArkel, set up the relationship with the Bevan Johnsons. “It has been wonderful to see our efforts actually making a difference and have a greater meaning than some of the other service projects we have done in the past,” she said.

Part of the service included being on call for the family. Late one Sunday night, VanArkel received a call from Johnson, who had become violently ill with what she later discovered was food poisoning. She and her husband, Jason, don’t have family nearby, and being new to town, didn’t have friends to call.

“Jason said, ‘Should I go next door and see if they can watch the kids?’” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘No, call Brittany.’ Without hesitation she walks over—she doesn’t have a car—and puts them to bed without knowing when we’ll be back.”

Their involvement led the Thetas to initiate a campus-wide bone marrow drive that registered over 100 students to the bone marrow directory—a much higher number than the area registry anticipated. Their publicity has since been used by the area registry for other drives.

All told, the Thetas performed over 300 hours of service for the Bevan Johnson family, and 142 hours for the bone marrow drive, resulting in the college’s Outstanding Service Program award.

“You could ask just about any member of Kappa Theta about leukemia, the need for bone marrow donations, or the effect of cancer on a family and they could go on for days,” said Diane Timm, director of student life.

VanArkel agreed. “Rian has helped us to appreciate the little things in life and have a better attitude about things that come our way,” she said. “If a 6-year-old can have a spinal tap and think nothing of it, maybe the things that come our way aren’t as big of a deal. Being able to watch a 6-year-old positively deal with adversity has given our group a heightened sense of maturity and appreciation for life.”

The Thetas plan to continue assisting the Bevan Johnson family for as long as they are needed. The family has asked each graduating senior to leave a memento— her handprint on a ceramic tile—for their home, and will continue to commemorate the seniors each year.