'Kisses From Keegan' fills needs for support for families facing childhood cancer

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Denecke family knows what it means to fight for a sick child. Their daughter, Keegan, got diagnosed with leukemia at seven years old. During that time, parents Paul and Carey Denecke say they also found a strong community of support.

That support led them to create Kisses From Keegan and Friends, a pediatric cancer foundation. And now, they’re giving other families the support they need.

Their two daughters, Keegan and Jillian, like the things a lot of girls their ages do. For example, a Starbucks run and cheerleading.

“So right now it's competition season,” Keegan, 14, said excitedly, talking about an upcoming tournament.

These are the normal, everyday things that Paul and Carey are glad they have.

“She was diagnosed when she was 7 and she's now 14, and five years off treatment this past December,” Carey Denecke said.

Keegan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Though she was young, Keegan remembers treatment from that time.

“When I would get put under anesthesia, that stuff, for some reason, really sticks with me, because it was scary,” Keegan said. “Because there was no guarantee of everything going as planned.”

For more than two years, Keegan underwent treatment. Her brothers and her sister, Jillian, are seen in photos, by her side.

“We painted the window of her door,” remembers Jillian, 11, who was just four years old at the time. “And me just there with her, in the playroom.”

Another photo stands out—this one of her brother, with her in her hospital bed. He’s wearing his homecoming crown and sash.

“Our whole family was impacted greatly,” Carey said.

Through this difficult time, the Deneckes remember the support they got from others.

“Community members, family, friends, people we didn't know,” Paul said, listing off people who stepped up to help.

That help inspired them to do the same for other families with sick kids. They understand what they’re going through.

“I think the people you're surrounded with, generally, even your own family, don't deeply understand what you're going through,” Carey said of the experience.

“I lost both my parents to cancer, but when my daughter is diagnosed, it's different,” Paul added.

While Keegan was still being treated for cancer, the Deneckes launched Kisses From Keegan and Friends.

“I think for the parents, it's providing a sense of 'I'm not in this alone,'” Paul said. “I'm not the only one going through this, these people understand.”

It started with an event called the Super Hero Shuffle in Lake Geneva, and it’s grown from there.

“You just build a network of families and a network. You look out for each other. You help each other,” he said.

The support they provide is wide ranging. There have been trips to Medieval Times and the Wisconsin Dells, so that families can make memories together. Kisses From Keegan and Friends makes toy deliveries to the hospital.

“I think you just don't realize how a small act really means a lot to people,” Carey said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a stop to the trips and the gatherings, for now. But it’s also allowed the foundation to offer financial support to more than 50 families.

“It may be something as simple as that little bit of reality, that little bit of normalcy, where I can breathe and I don't have to about financially,” Paul said.

Kisses From Keegan and Friends is a family effort. Keegan and Jillian are now members of the organization’s junior board. They helped plan an ice fishing derby recently. The event raised $31,000, and the girls will help decide how that money is spent.

The work of the foundation is another way for Keegan to heal.

“I don't know if it's letting go of where I was before, or bringing me back to where I was before,” she said. “But it's helping me get over the trauma of going through treatment.”

And how did they come up with the name Kisses From Keegan and Friends?

“We wanted to put the 'and friends' in there, because it wasn't just us,” Paul said. “It wasn't just our family. There's a lot of people. It was the people donating. It’s the people who are the volunteers at the events.”

As the Deneckes know, no one should have to do it alone.

If you’d like more information on Kisses From Keegan and Friends, you can visit https://kissesfromkeegan.org/.

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