A bittersweet glass

They were Katie Sparks and McKenna Wetzel, the I-Don't-Know-and-I-Don't-Care Girls.

If the Eader Elementary School classmates got a question that they didn't have a passionate answer to, those were their typical replies. McKenna's mother, Kristine Wetzel, might ask what they wanted to do that afternoon or where they felt like going, and she could often predict the answer — so much so that she anointed them both with a nickname.

"That was their reply to everything," Wetzel said. "Katie was 'I don't know,' and McKenna was 'I don't care.'"

For McKenna, that apathy resided largely on the surface. The Huntington Beach resident developed a love of philanthropy early in life and often donated proceeds to charity from the lemonade stands she set up on the corner near her house.

A year ago, McKenna died of a brain tumor at the age of 7. And this weekend, her friend is honoring the legacy of the I-Don't-Know-and-I-Don't-Care Girls with an act of decisiveness and empathy.

Katie, 9, joined nearly a dozen friends Tuesday afternoon to paint signs for a pair of lemonade stands to benefit the McKenna Claire Foundation, which the Wetzels set up in October to fund brain cancer research. The stands, one of which may go up on McKenna's favorite corner at Polynesian Lane and Bobbie Circle, will operate on what would have been her ninth birthday Sunday.

Moreover, they won't be the only two stands. The foundation, which has donated all its proceeds so far to a research team at Stanford University, has called on people worldwide to set up stands on Sunday and divert the proceeds to a charity of their choice.

"People seem to gravitate toward the foundation, and then they take it in a whole new direction," said Dave Wetzel, McKenna's father. "It shows you the effect one little girl can have on people."


A short, blessed life

McKenna Claire Wetzel came into the world Aug. 5, 2003, after her mother endured six months of bed rest. That rest proved to be the last calm for awhile; with both parents working and McKenna and her older sister, Jordan, engaged in sports and other endeavors, the Wetzel home always seemed to be on the go.

Still, amid all the activity, the Wetzels could see that their younger daughter was more than a hyperactive child.

With Jordan, Katie and other friends as her accomplices, McKenna got the enterprise bug early on. One of her favorite pastimes was to paint signs, set up a table on the corner and sell lemonade and sweets to passersby. Sometimes, she and her partners kept the proceeds, but other times, they forwarded them to Children's Hospital of Orange County, the Orange County Humane Society and other groups.

Then, in January of last year, McKenna began having health woes of her own. She promptly found herself on the receiving end of that charity.

At first, the Wetzels thought she had the flu, but when she began throwing up violently and developed a wandering eye, she underwent a CT scan that showed a mass growing on her brainstem. Doctors soon diagnosed it as an incurable form of brain cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, better known as DIPG, and gave her no more than 18 months to live.

While McKenna was out of school, a group of friends created the Tuesday Homework Club to keep her up to date with homework. Even after she returned to Eader, they continued to meet every Tuesday at a different member's house to study and socialize.

True to her nickname, McKenna didn't much care where the group gathered — the camaraderie was enough for her. In between school and treatments, she lived what her parents call "a rock star life," vacationing to Hawaii and Las Vegas, sitting on the floor at a Lakers game and attending tapings of"American Idol"and "Dancing with the Stars."

By June, her condition appeared to be improving; tests showed that the tumor had shrunk. Within weeks, though, it had grown again, and McKenna gradually lost her ability to move, talk and swallow. Her body eventually gave out July 21, two weeks before her eighth birthday.


Making a stand

With a group of friends, the Wetzels formed the McKenna Claire Foundation to help search for a cure to DIPG. Both Kristine, a continuation high school teacher, and Dave, a senior consultant for AutoNation, work full time, but they devote hours every week to the group's fundraising efforts.

In April and May, the foundation hosted a pair of parties in Seal Beach and Huntington. A golf tournament is planned in Rancho Santa Margarita in October. During Brain Cancer Awareness Month in May, the foundation worked with Chevron to set up a donation program for customers around Southern California; the drive netted more than $292,000.

On the receiving end of those funds is Michelle Monje, an assistant professor in the Stanford School of Medicine who leads the university's research efforts. The Wetzels provided Monje with more than funds; they also donated McKenna's brain tumor for study.

The tumor is just the fourth the school has received. Monje, who said about 400 children are diagnosed with DIPG in the United States every year, called each contribution invaluable.

"The more samples we have, the more strong conclusions we can make," she said.

So far, according to Kristine, the foundation has raised more than $100,000 for Stanford and is working to set up a grant program for other brain cancer researchers.

How much money Sunday's fundraiser will net for research, the Wetzels have no idea. A few weeks ago, they sent out a mass email urging friends and family members to set up stands for charity; the event's official name is Stand Up and Shine. The responses promising stands have come from as far away as Massachusetts and Australia.

The Wetzels have just one request for those who join the fundraiser: that they email the foundation declaring how much money they raised, and for whom.

For Katie and her friends, the charity was an easy pick. On the Wetzels' driveway Tuesday afternoon, they gathered on a huge tarp to paint signs for Sunday, clad in white McKenna Claire Foundation T-shirts. Among their slogans were "Macky's Lemon-Aid" and "We [Heart] Macky" — Macky being McKenna's nickname.

Katie, who last saw her friend in the hospital shortly before she died, imagined that McKenna would feel honored to have started a movement, however long or profitable it turned out to be.

"She would have felt really glad that we're doing it all for her," she said.


Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World