Andrew Dys

Seventh-graders' friend is gone, but not forgotten

FORT MILL -- Cancer can't kill friendship. Even death from cancer can't, because two 12-year-olds from Fort Mill named Jenna McFadden and Jordan Vereen refuse to let it.

Their best buddy, Jenna Witherspoon, died in December after a three-year battle against a brain tumor.

Instead of forgetting the girl they have known since diaper days, the kids have decided Jenna Witherspoon's name must live forever. This is a trio that did everything together. School. Birthday parties. Soccer. Sleepovers. All the girl stuff.

The girls, their families and a few others who were moved by Witherspoon's fight decided a patient room at the new Levine Children's Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte should be named for Witherspoon. That's the hospital where Witherspoon was treated. But more, it was where she raised money for the new hospital at radio telethons and other events.

Where Witherspoon, while sick, took time to play with and care for younger children with diseases.

But the girls need $50,000 to name the room. So what? The girls and others in Fort Mill who loved Witherspoon only have to think of her fight to have the strength to raise a few thousand bucks.

First, you feed people. Saturday is a fundraiser spaghetti supper at St. John's United Methodist Church in Fort Mill.

Other fundraisers also are in the works. Some pretty heady stuff for two girls who aren't even out of middle school yet.

"All Jenna wanted to do was be a kid just like us," Jordan said. "She would want every little boy or girl to have a room just for them."

"From the day we found out she was sick, she made us treat her the same as before," Jenna McFadden said. "She just wanted us to be her friends."

They were, and are.

At Fort Mill Middle School, where the girls are seventh-graders, Witherspoon had a locker.

She still does.

It is No. 805. In the seventh-grade wing where dreams live.

Through the little locker vents, students drop "Letters to Jenna." The locker remains a reminder of the girl whose sickness was so devastating, but her battle against it so valiant.

Of course, it takes lots of adults to do many of the fundraising details. It's not a good idea for 12-year-olds to snatch the car keys and drive to businesses looking for sponsorship help. But the inspiration, the drive, is from one girl who still has braces on her teeth and another with the freckles and red hair.

Karla Vereen and Sherri McFadden, the mothers, are in the fundraising with both feet, too. Each of the girls' parents has encouraged them to keep on plugging in Witherspoon's memory.

"These three girls are more than friends; they are sisters," Vereen said.

Witherspoon's parents, Tricia and Michael, have another daughter, Morgan. But this week is a tough one, Tricia said, because it is the third anniversary of Jenna's cancer diagnosis. The room at the hospital for their Jenna, an idea coming from the hearts of her friends, helps.

"During this time, we all found out who our true friends were, and Jenna knew that Jenna McFadden and Jordan were her friends then and forever," Tricia Witherspoon said.

Nobody knows when the 50 grand will be raised. With these two girls, I bet it's soon.

One of the things Tricia Witherspoon said her daughter wanted most was see that children's hospital open. She didn't, but her name will be there for every child because of two girls who know friendship lasts a lifetime -- hers and theirs.

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