Project Kennedy Helping Others and Keeping the Spirit of Kennedy Parker Alive

In January 2017, Kennedy Parker was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called “Ewing Sarcoma” at just 21-years-old. It all started around November 2016, when Kennedy started having sharp pain in her right jaw. Her wisdom teeth were removed, but the pain was still there. The dentist felt there was something more going on.

Kennedy went to see an oral surgeon and she was told to go home, grab clothes because she would be staying for at least the next five days.

She underwent surgery to remove pieces of bone and tissue from her jaw for testing.

A day after being released from the hospital, Kennedy and her family received a phone call. It turned out to be a tumor.

She underwent chemotherapy and eventually had surgery to remove the tumor on April 10, 2017. The surgery was a success and she was then cancer free.

While going through this, she enrolled in Chicago State University as a marketing and business major, was a member of the National Council of Negro Women and the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.

Kennedy started her own non-profit organization called Project Kennedy to raise awareness about cancer.

“She was the strongest person I’ve ever met in my life and I’m not saying that because she’s my child,” says Kennedy’s mother Darnesha Evans.

She was cancer free for two years until October 2019, the cancer returned and spread throughout her body. Darnesha says she knew Kennedy did not have much longer to live, but her daughter wanted to make the most out of life. Kennedy passed away in summer of 2020. One of the discussions they had prior to her passing was how they wanted to commemorate her life.

Kennedy wanted her service to be different, she wanted it to be a celebration of her life. She wanted people to wear green and gold, listen to uplifting music, and share their favorite memories of her.

“It was truly a celebration, we do not say funeral because it was not a funeral, she touched everybody,” says Darnesha.

Darnesha continues to keep Kennedy’s memory alive through her organization by sharing Kennedy’s story and helping families impacted by cancer.

Project Kennedy helps families by giving gift baskets featuring gift cards for food and gas, and other expenses to help those whose loved ones are going through cancer treatment.

“We call the gift baskets ‘SMILE Baskets’, which stands for She Makes It Look Easy, we send these to them to brighten up their day and encourage them,” says Darnesha.

The project has received overwhelming and positive support, from not only families impacted by cancer but also from the doctors and nurses who treated Kennedy. Darnesha says it is important to keep the spirit of Kennedy alive by helping others. The Project Kennedy Facebook page helps share the organizations events and outreach.

The organization hosts many fundraising events including an annual virtual walk for Kennedy called ‘Walking for A Friend’.

Kennedy also received multiple blood transfusions during her cancer battle. Darnesha is partnering with the Red Cross in Chicago to a host blood drive in her Kennedy’s memory. Darnesha says raising awareness about donating blood, especially in the African American community is important for those battling illnesses.

If you are eligible and feeling well, visit to schedule an appointment to donate.

Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Doreen Fosco

Good Friday Blood Drive Dedicated to Longtime Firefighter

Thomas Conaty was a fireman with the Kenney Fire Department in Kenney, Illinois for 31 years and most recently served as the President of the Board of Trustees. On February 5th, 2021, Thomas passed away. He dedicated his life toward helping the community and protecting those in need.

Captain Troy Lashbrook of the Kenney Fire Department, was a dear friend who worked alongside Thomas for more than ten years.

“He was on our team for a longtime and was very community oriented. Thomas was my mentor when I started,” Troy says.

Five years ago, the Kenney Fire Department began hosting an annual blood drive on Good Friday. This year’s blood drive set for April 2, 2021, is dedicated to Thomas.

Troy says the drive has grown tremendously. During their first year hosting the blood drive, 35 units of blood were collected. In 2020, more than 100 units of blood were collected.

“It’s excellent knowing people want to come back every year. It’s awesome that the Red Cross lets us know when the blood is sent to help others,” Troy says.

If you are eligible and well, visit to find a blood drive near you.

Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Family reflects on Becky Bogner’s spirit of helping others

Becky Bogner was an inspirational woman, who was loved dearly by the people she surrounded herself with. She was incredibly involved with her family, especially her grandchildren. Katherine Bogner, one of Becky’s three daughters, describes her mother having a major impact on their lives.

“She always told my sisters and I to put others first,” Katherine says.

Becky worked at Varna Midland High School for 22 years as a secretary and loved supporting the students and staff.

Similar to her mother, Katherine followed in her footsteps to work in the same school district as a middle school teacher later in life. During her first year, she taught at Varna Midland High School at the same time her mom was working as a secretary.

“It was a little challenging having your mother in the building being a first-year teacher. But it was fun, and I am glad we got to share that time together,” Katherine says.

On April 6, 2019, Becky passed away from H1N1 Influenza. She stayed in the hospital for almost a month and received treatment including blood transfusions. The high school hosts an annual blood drive every year, but this year’s drive is dedicated to Becky.

“We’re so grateful for that. When you’re grieving, it’s easy to feel like the world goes on and people forget who you lost, but it’s amazing they’re doing lots of things in her memory,” Katherine says.

Becky was a long-time volunteer in the community for many years. Katherine feels honoring her is a great way to carry out the same influence she had on others.

“The blood drive is a way for people to give back, and that’s something my mom did her entire life,” Katherine says.

If you are eligible and feeling well, visit to schedule an appointment to donate.

Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Family Keeping Memory of Danyel Pitts Alive Through Gift of Blood Donations

Danyel Pitts was a kind, honest and caring woman who passed away after a three year battle with breast cancer in January 2020. She was Springfield, Illinois native, known as a devoted wife, friend, and sorority sister.

Danyel grew up loving track & field and excelling at it. In her youth, she received a full ride track & field scholarship to Eastern Illinois University and was a member of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.

Her dedication and love for track continued through her life. She was a track & field coach at Springfield Southeast High School and was loved dearly by her team.

“She was a sweetheart. A woman of faith. She always did what was right. She was overall super,” says Calvin Pitts, Danyel’s husband.

During her battle with cancer, she received multiple blood transfusions while undergoing chemotherapy. Calvin serves on the American Red Cross South Central Illinois board of directors and understands the importance of how blood donations helps others. 

In her memory, her sorority sisters and family are hosting a blood drive. The immense amount of support truly shows what kind of woman and friend Danyel was.

“It’s a blessing, but I am not surprised,” says her husband Calvin. “The support is outstanding.”

If you are eligible and feeling healthy visit to schedule an appointment to donate.

Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Doreen Fosco

Mom Shares Story of Survival Thanks to Gift of Blood Donors

Kala Breder was inspired to donate blood after her third pregnancy nearly took her life. This pregnancy was very different for Kala. It was during the coronavirus pandemic, which took a toll on restaurants everywhere. Her restaurant, The Red Light Bar & Grill in Quincy, Illinois, suffered an economic impact. But it was not the only hurdle she faced, during the last two months of her pregnancy, she had to stop working and was placed on bed rest.

In July 2020, Kala was seven months pregnant when her baby became unresponsive, requiring her to have an emergency C-section. After the operation, her son was airlifted to St. Louis for further evaluation. Kala was required to stay in the hospital one more day. About 12 hours after her C-Section, Kala went unconscious due to extensive bleeding. Her body went into DIC (Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation), a condition in which small blood clots develop in the blood stream blocking blood vessels and depleting platelets.

“It was a frightening experience. Out of nowhere my uterus just gave out,” Kala says.

When she woke up, she found out she had received 32 units of blood to keep her alive long enough to be airlifted to St. Louis. Although she received the blood she needed to stay alive, the doctors did not think she was going to make it and had already informed her husband about the possibility. Once they touched down in St. Louis, Kala felt significantly better and was stable from that point on.

“One of my first questions was how can I donate and when can I do it,” Kala says.

Kala had never donated blood before. Due to her size, she had never been able to meet the weight requirement for blood donations. It had never crossed her mind to donate until she saw the lifesaving impact it had on her. Now, Kala has a life goal to donate back the 32 units of blood she received to help give someone another chance at life.

“If I had only received one unit of blood, it wouldn’t have been enough. I needed all 32 to help make that turn around,” Kala says.

Kala’s recovery was a tough one. She had to learn how to walk and dress herself again, through physical therapy to build up her strength and get back on her feet.

Today, Kala and her baby are doing well. She’s dedicated her time to blood drives and encouraging family and friends to do the same. She feels blood donations have not only given her another chance at life but have also changed her family’s perspective. Waking up every day is something she doesn’t take for granted. She is reminded not to stress over the little things in life.

“If it weren’t for the generosity of blood donors, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Kala says. “I’m trying to live life in a way that would make those who donated proud.”

If you are healthy and feeling well, visit to schedule an appointment to donate.

Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Machesney Park Man Earns Red Cross Certificate of Extraordinary Personal Action for Lifesaving Act

Emergencies can happen at any time: in the grocery store parking lot, at a family wedding, on a hot day at the community pool or even at the office and inside your very own home. But regardless of when and where they occur, emergency situations usually have one thing in common: a crowd of people standing around, staring at a victim—wondering who should act and trying to remember what to do. That is, until a hero emerges from the crowd.

On February 2, 2020, during church service at Riverside Community Church in Machesney Park, IL, a gentleman in the congregation appeared to be slumped over and unresponsive. Those attending church, and those sitting near him, called out for help. Pastor Cory Whitford calmly responded. He conducted an assessment and determined that the gentleman was no longer breathing.

Pastor Whitford placed the gentleman on the floor of the church pew and began administering chest compressions. After several cycles, the gentleman began to respond. Pastor Whitford continued to keep the gentleman calm and comfortable until EMS arrived. Pastor Whitford’s quick and calm action helped to save this man’s life!

“It was an honor to be able to do this and to be able to receive this award,” says Pastor Whitford. “I would do it again in a heartbeat because I would want someone to do the same for me or one of my loved ones.”

On behalf of the American Red Cross, Cory was presented with the Certificate of Extraordinary Personal Action, awarded to individuals who step up in an emergency situation and help save or sustain a life. Cory exemplifies the mission of the Red Cross to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

Written by Hannah Allton, Regional Communications Manager

Volunteer Rick Daitchman reflects on time at Red Cross and milestone blood donation

Over the years, Rick Daitchman has dedicated a lot of time to the Red Cross through volunteering and donating blood. His parents inspired him to serve others.

“My father and mother were always helping people. That’s one of the things that I remember. They treated people right and helped,” Rick says.

Rick’s drive to help others stems back to when he was a college student during the Vietnam War.

“I got lucky,” says Rick. “I had a high number in the draft and didn’t get picked. I have a lot of friends who went to Vietnam and aren’t here anymore, so I just decided to give back to those people.”

Rick’s been volunteering with the Red Cross since 2009 but has been donating blood for almost 30 years. Most recently, Rick donated his 60th unit of blood!

“I don’t really think about it as a big deal anymore. I just think of it as something I look forward to. And I like the cookies! I like the experience and I like to joke around with the staff,” says Rick.

As a volunteer, Rick has worked with Disaster Cycle Services on the Sound the Alarm campaign and was also one of the first volunteers to be part of the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS). This program provides information about Red Cross services to military recruits and families before they are deployed.

Thanks to the Red Cross, Rick is trained in first aid and CPR. And since he retired at the end of 2020, he looks forward to spending more time volunteering.

To become a volunteer like Rick, please visit You can also make an appointment to donate blood at

Written by Doreen Fosco, Communications and Marketing Intern

Quincy Volunteer Shares Joy of Serving as Blood Donor Ambassador

Julia Goerlich has been volunteering as a blood donor ambassador with the Red Cross Quad Cities/West Central Illinois Chapter for the past 12 years. Julia worked in the medical field, so volunteering as a blood donor ambassador was a natural transition for her. She helps to make the blood donor experience a positive one by greeting people at the door, takes their temperature, and makes them feel welcome. Julia treasures the personal stories she hears from donors and it motivates her to keep going.

“It’s amazing to hear why people are donating”, Julia says.

In addition to volunteering, Julia also serves on the Biomedical Outreach Committee, where she helps spread the word about blood drives in the community. Her first experience organizing a blood drive was at her church Blessed Sacrament in Quincy.

Julia says she was nervous in the beginning speaking to her church, but eventually became more comfortable.

“[Promoting blood drives] individually is one thing, but when you’re talking to 100 to 200 people, it’s a whole different story”, Julia says.

Julia shared with her church how blood and platelet donations impacted her life personally, after it helped her mother and siblings battle illnesses. This experience made Julia want to give back to others who may need the gift of life. She teamed up with members of her church to host a blood drive. In their first year, more than 40 people donated blood.

Julia continues to encourage others to volunteer and get the full experience of what it’s like as a blood donor ambassador.

“I love getting people excited about it,” Julia says, “I tell them all about what I do, what I see, and what I hear before they come out.”

To learn more about becoming a blood donor ambassador, visit If you are healthy and feeling well, consider donating blood by making an appointment at

Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Central Illinois Board Member Shares Long Journey With The Red Cross

Deb Smith’s experience at the Red Cross began in the 90s. She was seeking an opportunity to volunteer, while furthering her education and working for OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington, Illinois as a nurse and in various leadership roles. She was eventually approached by Executive Director Lyn Hruska and then board chair Leanna Bordner, to serve on the volunteer board of directors. Deb was more than excited to take on the responsibility and knew she was in the right place.

“I felt so aligned with their mission” Deb says.

For Deb, the work of the Red Cross became personal. She experienced the importance of blood donation as her sister and mother received blood transfusions while battling illnesses. Although her sister passed, she still recognizes how blood donations can make a difference.

“It strengthened me with needing to help however I can with blood”, says Deb, “It was there for my family when we needed it the most.”

It wasn’t long until Deb started to find more opportunities within the Red Cross to fulfill her passion for helping others. She became a blood donor ambassador, helping provide a positive experience to blood donors at blood drives.

Although, she is a board member and has retired from the workforce, she still wants to utilize her nursing skills. Last fall, she became a Divisional Nurse Leader for the Red Cross. Currently, she speaks to nursing students in Peoria and Bloomington about becoming involved with the Red Cross.

“I think it’s a wonderful way to serve the Red Cross”, says Deb, “It’s easy to learn, and if you’re a people person, it’s the place to be.”

The Red Cross has opened many doors for Deb’s love of giving back to those in need. She’s come across people from all walks of life throughout her journey and cherishes the stories that come with it.

To become a Red Cross volunteer like Deb, visit

Written by Communications & Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Widow of Fallen Officer Continues Husband’s Legacy Through Blood Donation

Ask anyone who knew Deputy Jacob Keltner, and they’d say he was a dedicated father and husband, loved his job and was a funny guy.

On March 7th, 2019, the 35-year-old McHenry County Sheriff’s Deputy and Task Force Officer was killed in the line of duty while serving a warrant in Rockford, Illinois.

“Jake was the love of my life,” says Becki Keltner, Jake’s widow. “We miss him every second of every day. He was hardworking. He was a fun-loving guy. He loved to make jokes. He loved his boys. He loved his job. It’s just hard to fathom how we’ve made it this far without him.”

After Jake was shot, he received several blood transfusions that helped to sustain his life long enough for his family and friends to say goodbye. Becki now gives back to the community, holding a blood drive each year with the Red Cross in Jake’s memory. She hosted the 2nd Annual Jacob Keltner Memorial Blue Blood Drive in January, collecting more than 300 units of blood from generous donors. The drive was filled with many of Jake’s fellow officers, friends and family, including his parents.

“I’ve always known about the Red Cross and thought it was an awesome organization,” says Hellen Keltner, Jake’s mother. “Then, being able to be with my son before he died, because of blood donations, it opened my eyes to how important it really is and how many people can have those minutes and that time with someone they love.”

Becki encourages those who are healthy to donate blood at any drive in their area, to help others who need it most.

“Jake went to his job every day and wanted to help people and save lives. That’s what the Red Cross is doing every single day, too,” Becki says. “So, it’s important to me to work with them to do some good in our community.”

Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood. If you are healthy and feeling well, consider scheduling an appointment to donate at

Written by Hannah Allton, Regional Communications Manager