COLUMBIA — The sun from the late afternoon sky flooded into the glass doorway as the Hickman volleyball team gathered around Kewpies coach Greg Gunn. This time, he wasn’t encouraging them to play harder or instructing them on how to play the next set. Instead, the players listened as Gunn described their role as servers during the evening’s fundraiser at Shakespeare’s on Broadway.
The team held a fundraiser Thursday night to contribute to the Megan Ankeney Memorial Fund. Both the junior varsity and varsity squads participated in what has become an annual effort, commemorating a young woman that shared their passion for volleyball, and more importantly, life.
A swarm of Hickman purple flooded the restaurant with a group of about 35 people on hand. With school spirit in full force, the players dished out pizzas, poured drinks and bussed tables with the same energy they exude on the volleyball court. Purple and yellow shirts spilled in and out of Shakespeare’s entrance. Coaches, parents, players, fellow students and many others shared laughs, conversations and of course, pizza. “Heartache Tonight” by the Eagles blared from the restaurant’s speakers, but one look at the smiles on people’s faces made it clear that only positive energy was emanating through this room. It seemed as if everyone involved followed the inspiring example of the person they were honoring.
Megan Ankeney was 16 years old when she died on Aug. 7, 2004. Her lifelong fight against juvenile arthritis never stopped her from living the life of any other teenager. Ankeney’s activities included both the Girl Scouts and the Arthritis Foundation.
It was her role as the volleyball manager at West Junior High that connected her to the Hickman volleyball program. She built friendships with the players at West, and some of those friends made the Hickman volleyball team when they entered high school in the fall of 2004. When Ankeney died, the volleyball program was quick to respond, and the inaugural fundraiser at Shakespeare’s took place about a month later.The fundraiser is now in its fourth year, and the players Ankeney knew graduated this past spring. Although most of the program isn’t directly connected to Ankeney, her presence has not been forgotten.
“I did not personally know her,” Hickman coach Greg Gunn said. “I had heard people talk about her and heard stories about her and what a nice kid she was, but I never got a chance to meet her.”
Gunn’s dedication to the event was worn literally on his sleeve, as he sported the same shirt from the first fundraiser back in 2004.
Ankeney’s mother, Mary Ellen Ankeney, shared the story of a former West Junior High volleyball player named Lindsey Hart. Hart used the memories of her manager and friend to help fuel her pursuit of a college education. Megan Ankeney’s friendship helped her complete one of the scholarship and college application essays that graduating seniors write in order to show a deeper dimension of their lives.
“She had written an essay about Megan, and it pertained to her relationship to Megan through the volleyball team. And that though Megan couldn’t go on the floor and play and hit the ball, she was just as enthusiastic and excited about being there,” Mary Ellen Ankeney said.
“Megan was my inspiration during volleyball season and every time I began to complain, I would look at her, and her sweet smile would remind me that my life was great,” Hart’s essay read.
Ankeney’s impact on others is even more impressive considering her bout with juvenile arthritis had unique complications.
“Megan’s case is exceptional in that she had early onset,” said Mary Ellen Ankeney, who also described Megan Ankeney’s illness as a “severe, serious disease.”
Juvenile arthritis can affect the organs and joints, and Megan Ankeney mostly suffered from the latter. Her body was often stiff because of the symptoms, so she had to do exercises that helped with her physical problems. She made numerous trips to physicians, who put her through constant lab work in an effort to keep the arthritis in check. She was also short for her age, which was a product of the disease itself as well as the side effects of her medications.
A few moments with Mary Ellen Ankeney make it clear how her daughter managed to stay so upbeat despite her physical struggles. Ankeney smiled as she recalled the names of her daughter’s friends, and her cheerful demeanor stood out even in the midst of such a positive atmosphere. Tears slowly pooled in her eyes as she talked about honoring her daughter’s memory.
“It’s important as a family to remember that child and try to honor her, and it’s great that other people do that,” Ankeney said.
Ankeney said the education and awareness of the disease would be the best way for the public to make an impact.
According to KidsHealth.org, Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, or JRA, affects about 50,000 children in the United States. It is an autoimmune disease, and its severity depends on the number of joints it has affected. There are three main types: polyarticular arthritis, which affects more girls than boys, Pauciarticular JRA, which affects four or fewer joints and Systemic JRA, which targets the whole body. Immediate symptoms include sudden swelling and stiffness in the joints. The exercises Megan Ankeney performed strengthened her muscles so they could support and protect her joints, as well as allowing her to maintain her range of motion.
The Megan Ankeney Memorial Fund supports the Joint Adventures Camp for children with arthritis. Contributions can be made to the Megan Ankeney Memorial Fund in the care of First National Bank Customer Service, P.O. Box 1867, Columbia, MO., 65205-1867.