Since his sister's death, Brett Kast and his family have helped make children smile
Miracles do happen.
Just ask Brett Kast, one of the founders of the Jenna Kast Believe in Miracles Foundation. Ask the families of the 70-something kids suffering from serious illnesses that they have helped. Ask one of the people who has contributed to the pool of donations that has grown to more than $400,000.
Ask any one of those people — they’ll say miracles do happen.
Over a nine-year span, Brett, a journalism sophomore and member of Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, has helped give ailing children and their families something to smile about. They grant kids’ wishes, just like “Make a Wish,” and are dedicated to making life better for anyone going through hardships.
Unfortunately, the girl who inspired it all is no longer here to see its impact.
Her name was Jenna Kast. She had a smile that could light up a whole city. A laugh that would spread across the room and hit everybody. A life that inspired family and friends to help others.
Looking at the happiest girl in the room, it was hard to imagine Brett’s younger sister was in the midst of an eight-year battle with ependymoma brain tumors — a battle that eventually took her life at 11 years old.
During her life, the Jenna Kast Believe in Miracles Foundation was a small organization to help fund brain tumor research. Four years after her death, the foundation is larger than ever and spreading Jenna’s love and joy to families all over Michigan.
Big dream from little kids
The foundation all started with a fifth grade Brett, who would frequent the children’s hospital to visit his younger sister during radiation treatments. Jenna would typically be her bubbly, happy self, but her attitude was rare to see in other patients in such a building.
Weak. Tired. Somber.
Those were some of the emotions worn on the young patients’ faces, and Brett wanted to do something about it. He saw a kid around his age battling leukemia who often sat by himself and looked bored — until Brett gave him his GameBoy the next day. The two never saw each other again, but Brett saw an opportunity to continue the giving.
“The day after that, I kind of enjoyed, you know, giving something to someone,” Brett said.
Not long after that, Brett pitched an idea to his best friend J.D. Sterba, who now attends Central Michigan University — create bracelets and sell them to raise money for tumor research. After all, LiveStrong bracelets were all the craze.
The fifth grade duo went to Buddy Club, the after school club at Wass Elementary in Troy, Mich., to pitch their idea. The plan didn’t blow them away.
“All the advisers and everybody there thought we were a little crazy and a little in over our heads,” Sterba said.
The two then went to their always-supportive parents, and their idea became a reality. They decided on red bracelets, but the message to write on them was a tough decision. They both said it was Brett’s mom, Paula Kast, who came up with the idea to etch “Believe in Miracles.”
“(It was) to go along with Jenna,” Brett said. “She had to believe in miracles.”
Ever since the first sale in 2004, Believe in Miracles has changed immensely.
Paula Kast has taken the role as the foundation’s president, working more than 40 hours a week on Believe in Miracles. Instead of just selling $2 bracelets at school and church functions, the foundation has seen some events where five figures are added to their initiative.
Believe in Miracles has also delivered more than 70 families some of their best days.
70 smiles and counting
Just one grade below Brett and J.D. at Wass, fourth grader Andrew Schoenbeck was going through a fight with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Because of his disease, he wasn’t able to play baseball or soccer and fill his dresser with trophies like his friends.
That’s when Brett and J.D. stepped in to give him a trophy of his own, something Andrew still keeps to this day.
“They have been nothing but a blessing in my life,” said Schoenbeck, who has been in remission for the last eight years.
Since then, Believe in Miracles has grown to bring ailing kids all over the country. One went to Green Bay to see the Packers and meet star cornerback Charles Woodson. Another went to New York City to meet Alicia Keys backstage. A handful have gone to Disney World.
But more commonly, kids are given a shopping spree at their local mall. 13-year-old Southfield resident Christopher Leverette was the latest recipient of one on Saturday at Twelve Oaks Mall.
He’s been through 27 surgeries for his conditions, left lung aplasia being the most critical one, but it’s OK. He’s “used to it,” he said.
First stop was the Apple store to get a Macbook, where the onlookers were either clapping or wiping away tears upon his arrival.
One person who was too overwhelmed to follow behind him was his mom, Shelia Leverette.
“I was thinking all he’s been through – it’s amazing,” she said. “He’s been through a lot ... just to see those people honor him made him very happy.”
When Christopher was asked if the shopping spree was one of his best days in a while, his smile almost became bigger than his face as he followed with a “yes.”
Tough, happy inspiration
Jenna wasn’t one for serious conversation, but she instigated one with her mom after buying supplies to grant a wish.
She said she didn’t want any more brain tumors, but then asked a thought-provoking question.
“What if I never ever had a brain tumor, would we have started Believe in Miracles?” she asked.
Her mom told her the idea probably would have never popped up, leaving what would be 70 families without the opportunities the foundation gave.
“Well, then it’s a good thing I had brain tumors,” Jenna exclaimed. “But I don’t want to have any more.”
After going through eight brain surgeries, three radiation treatments and three rounds of chemotherapy in an eight year span, she died in the comfort of her own home on July 4, 2010.
Instead of Believe in Miracles slowing down after her passing, it grew rapidly.
“When she passed away, that’s when it picked up like crazy,” Brett said. “And my mom, she loves doing it, because she loves helping families going through the same thing we did.”
Brett’s younger sister Nancy, who is a senior at Troy Athens High School, says she sees a little bit of Jenna in every kid they help. She knows how her younger sister would feel if she was around to help the foundation she inspired.
“I feel like she would become close friends with every kid, try to see them all the time, grant every wish and help more kids and find more kids to help,” Nancy said.
The always-happy, never-quitting Jenna Kast isn’t around to help anymore, but her legacy is remembered.
Her smile is still seen on the faces of those who Believe in Miracles helps.
Her positive attitude catches onto any person who knows her story.
And because of her family and friends, the miracles she inspired are still happening.