HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — The Clopp, Rodriguez and Kenny families had never met before Wednesday, but they all have a major bond.
When Christian Clopp was diagnosed with brain cancer in October 2010, his family started Christian’s Crusaders to support him and others with the disease. The group’s Facebook page had more than 8,000 friends when Christian died in February — many from across the country and around the world, all touched by his story.
But the Clopp family’s main focus now is on local families who have children diagnosed with cancer. Since Christian’s death, two other children at the George L. Hess Educational Complex — Aiyanna Rodriguez, 9, and Dylan Kenny, 10 — have since been diagnosed with a form of the disease.
Mark Clopp said he did not have plans to continue the group after his son’s death, but he has now dedicated it to other local families.
“I’ve had people say I should turn it into something much larger, but I’m reluctant to do that at this point. You can become a professional fundraiser and you lose the personal contact. I like that.”
Clopp, a retired sergeant with the Hamilton Township Police Department, said his advice to families dealing with cancer is to keep their faith, which he said helped his family through the process.
“Take it one day at a time. You can’t look too far into the future,” he said. “Deal with the days’ problems as they come along.”
On July 25, right before Aiyanna’s doctor diagnosed her with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Carlos Rodriguez knew it would be serious. The doctor waited until both he and his wife, Azalea, were present before speaking with them.
“I think when you get that kind of news, the feeling is kind of despair,” he said. “You are so focused on the moment you are not sure what will happen next. It’s so surreal. You never think it will happen until it does.”
But Aiyanna had some understanding of the situation.
“When the doctor asked her if she knew what it was, she said ‘Yes,’” Carlos Rodriguez said. “She talked about Christian. And that was hard because her only experience was a negative one.”
Jeannette and Larry Kenny’s son Dylan,10, had actually been friends and fellow Boy Scouts with Christian, and the two would have been in the same fourth-grade class at the Hess school last year if Christian had been able to attend.
When Dylan was first diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma Aug. 30, Jeanette Kenny said her son was scared of the diagnosis, because of his friend.
“His first words were, ‘I don’t want to die,’” she said. “That’s all I could think about — what happened to Christian.”
But since the diagnosis, Jeanette said Dylan has been handling the news very well.
“He said, ‘I’m OK — I’m super-strong,’” she said. “He’s been very upbeat.” The fifth-grader even wanted to go back to school, but doctors said he will have to be home-schooled probably all year.
And Dylan has taken a very optimistic approach toward his disease, a type of cancer that forms in bone or soft tissue.
“It’s just cancer,” he said. “It’s treatable. We’re going to get through it.”
Larry Kenny said the fact so many children who also went to Joseph C. Shaner School in Hamilton Township have been diagnosed with cancer has made some parents worried that it’s not a coincidence,
“It’s just very strange,” he said.
Despite being in the same grade, Dylan and Aiyanna never met before the families had dinner Wednesday night. They quickly discussed their hospitals and doctors and various treatments they receive. Dylan also was surprised when Aiyanna said she can still go to school once a week.
He also told her not to be scared when they use needles.
“It won’t hurt,” he said.
The families say because of Christian there is also a greater awareness of what the kids are going through at Hess. Officials with the Hamilton Township School District declined to comment for the story, citing medical confidentiality for the students.
Aiyanna said the school and her classmates and teachers have been accommodating.
“(The teachers) said if I need any help or if I ever feel bad I can go to one of their rooms,” she said.
Her older brother, Carlos Raziel Rodriguez, 10, a fifth-grader at Hess, said “every time” he turns around he sees a classmate offering his sister sympathy.
He also notes that he helps her the most at home.
“They help with the money,” he said, pointing to his parents. “I’m like her indentured servant. Only it’s not for seven years.”
The Clopp family has also reached out to the family of Conner Lai, a 14-year-old Mays Landing resident who was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma on Sep. 12 and is being home-schooled. Conner’s mother, Shannon Lai, said the news has been very overwhelming but that she is grateful to have the Clopps’ support.
“At this point, they’re helping me with where to go and what to do,” she said.
Mark Clopp has been organizing fundraisers and tried to supply other things the families need. Jeannette Kenny said Clopp helped the family a lot by raising money for expenses and helping them with their home.
“He let us know he understood the feelings we are having,” she said. “He told us not to be embarrassed when help was offered.”
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