LENA — A simple slip of paper hung next to the bed of 10-year-old Kyle Hodkiewicz as he underwent chemotherapy treatments at Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee. On the paper, Kyle tracked his Little League Baseball statistics:
- 2014 Season: 32 Strikeouts.
- 2015 Season: Injured List.
The column for 2016 was blank.
Throughout his over two-year battle with leukemia, the shy, humble kid from Lena used his love of sports as motivation during difficult treatments, determined to return to home.
“I’m trying really hard to get better and stronger so I can return to school and sports soon,” Kyle wrote home in a letter. Sadly, Kyle would never get the chance to fill that 2016 column.
But where there is sadness, there is also joy. During his struggle, Kyle’s faith in God and trust in his doctors, family and friends would rally his small parish and community to show the true power of compassion.
“He was very special to a lot of people,” said Mitch Hodkiewicz, Kyle’s father. “From the day you met him you knew he was special.”
First Little League game
It was May 2013, and Kyle, then 8, laced up his cleats for his first Little League baseball game. He pitched two solid innings, striking out four batters. Unfortunately, the exciting day of baseball brought an underlying issue to the attention of Kyle’s family.
“He played his first baseball game in excruciating pain,” Mitch said. “I remember him coming home that night just wailing of growing pains.”
When the pain persisted, Kyle was taken to the hospital for testing. That is when the unexpected discovery was made. Kyle had leukemia.
“I think he was in a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, but he really didn’t complain,” said Mike Hodkiewicz, Kyle’s grandfather. “He just accepted what was going on. This was such a gut blow.”
The diagnosis came two weeks after Kyle’s first Communion at St. Anne Church in Lena. It was determined that Kyle had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, which the family was told can have a 75 to 85 percent cure rate.
Kyle was removed from school and began chemotherapy treatments at St. Vincent Hospital of Green Bay. “He had such a strong will to fight this cancer, even when times weren’t the best,” Mitch said.
It wasn’t until February 2014 that Kyle returned to school. By the time summer rolled around, he was looking like his old self and ready to get back to sports.
“That summer he was in remission. He played Little League Baseball and had an outstanding year,” Mike said. “He had 32 strikeouts.”
In the fall, Kyle remained active with school, football and basketball despite his chemotherapy.
“He was taking oral chemo every day and we would have to take him once a month down to Green Bay for his spinal tap and his chemo,” Mitch said. “He was handling everything like a champion.”
In early 2015, shortly after winning the Knights of Columbus Free-Throw Contest, Kyle came home from basketball practice and told Mitch he wasn’t feeling well.
“He said, ‘Dad, I can’t catch my breath. I think coach might have run me too hard in practice,’” Mitch said. “That’s when I became concerned again, and we took him into St. Vincent’s for a checkup.”
The blood tests came back positive. Kyle’s leukemia had returned.
The family was referred to Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee, where it was determined that Kyle needed a bone-marrow transplant. Kyle’s younger brother, Tyler, turned out to be a sibling match to donate marrow, but more treatments had to be done before the transplant could occur.
Kyle remained in Milwaukee during treatments, splitting time between Children’s Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House across the street.
Despite the frequent treatments, Kyle remained active. On days when he was feeling well, he and Mitch would spend time grocery shopping, playing games and practicing sports at the local driving range, batting cages and basketball courts.
Series of setbacks
Despite Kyle’s resilient spirit, his cancer kept fighting back. “There was just a series of things that went so bad so quick,” Mike said.
In June, doctors found that Kyle had kidney damage, and he was put on dialysis for a month.
“Nothing they were doing was working,” Mike said. “Then Kyle went on some kind of experimental program, and the cancer just exploded.”
The next three months were spent primarily in the intensive care unit, with a final visit home over the Fourth of July. By September, the family received the devastating news that Kyle was losing the battle. On Sept. 19, 2015, Kyle passed away surrounded by his family. He was 10 years old.
“He just had so much potential,” Mike said. “He was a kid with faith and hope and trust.”
While Kyle’s death was tragic, the family may not have realized just how much impact Kyle would still have.
“Forever On Kyle’s Team”
“Forever on Kyle’s Team!” The chant erupted from the Lena gymnasium as a sea of orange clothing cheered on the boys’ varsity basketball team, which donned orange sneakers, socks and embroideries. Even the visiting Peshtigo Bulldogs sported orange.
It was Jan. 29, 2016, and the Hodkiewicz family’s Orange-Out Night, a fundraiser for Families of Children with Cancer, was in full swing. The family wanted to give back to the organization that helped throughout Kyle’s fight, but they never expected the response they received.
Deacon Peter Gard of St. Anne Parish said that when news of Kyle’s diagnoses first spread, it did not take long for the parish and community to rally around the Hodkiewicz family.
“When you are from a small community, you quickly realize how many people are affected by this,” Deacon Gard said. “There were always prayers going on. A lot of people were being as supportive as they could.”
Support from parish
Fr. Nonito Barra, who replaced Fr. Celestine Byekwaso at St. Anne Parish in 2014, in the middle of Kyle’s battle, said it was inspiring to watch the response of the parish.
“They supported the family not only with moral support, but they helped financially,” Fr. Nonito said. “That is a good gesture on the part of the members of the parish. It shows that they really support each other, and they really care for each other.”
Fr. Nonito, Fr. Celestine and Deacon Gard made regular trips to Green Bay and Milwaukee to be with Kyle.
“The pastoral care has just been incredible,” Mike said.
Fundraisers and benefits sprung up all over the community. Local business, the fire department and the Lena School District joined the effort to support the Hodkiewiczes, providing key services and donations to the family. The sports teams bore stickers and patches supporting their teammate and friend.
“Team Kyle” was the chant as support grew well beyond his hometown, bringing together people from around the state. Organizations such as Friends of Families with Cancer and the Ronald McDonald House provided the Hodkiewicz family the support it needed to be with Kyle at all times.
Athletes on Kyle’s Team
Kyle’s story even reached the likes of athletes Scott Tolzien (former Wisconsin Badger and Green Bay Packer), Sam Dekker (former Badger basketball star) and Jason Berken (Major League Baseball pitcher).
Today, “I’m on Kyle’s Team” shirts can be seen throughout the surrounding communities with their bright orange color symbolizing leukemia awareness for not only Kyle but all families struggling with the illness. “When people see these shirts and they see the orange, you get to tell this story, and that is what we want to do,” Mike said.
Though Kyle may be gone, his team plays on. From the struggles of a 10-year-old boy grew a movement that is now supporting countless others. The Hodkiewiczs’ Orange-Out Night raised $4,100 for Friends of Families of Children with Cancer. On June 21, the Lena community will host a memorial blood drive and bone-marrow transplant sign-up in conjunction with the American Red Cross.
Giving back to others
Mitch and Mike are also giving many of the items donated to Kyle at fundraisers and by organizations.
“We have been so lucky with all of the people that have been so nice and so giving,” Mike said. “We have got to give back.”
Bishop David Ricken, who received a letter from Mike voicing his family’s joy over the support they received, said that community and faith are essential in getting through challenging times, and people like Kyle will always be there to keep us together.
“There must have been something about the quality of Kyle’s love and the way he handled his journey,” Bishop Ricken said. “I think everybody sensed a specialness in him and I think that is what made people believe that for some reason, because of his young age — the illness he had and the way he handled it — that perhaps he was specially chosen for this particular role, which turned out to be very unifying for the community.”
Kyle was laid to rest with the very slip of paper that motivated him throughout his illness.
Though the 2016 column will never be filled, Kyle realized a much more important achievement that goes far beyond a strikeout.
“We believe that we all have a certain amount of time on this earth, and we all have a mission and a goal that we need to accomplish before we are called home to be with Jesus,” Deacon Gard said. “I believe in my heart that Kyle’s job was to help unite and bring this community a little bit closer and he was very successful at it.”
For the Hodkiewiczs, none of this could have started without the support they received from their neighbors in faith.
“There are just so many great people in this community,” Mitch said. “We just want people to know Kyle’s story and we just want people to know how appreciative we are,” added Mike. “We cannot say thank you enough.”