Before Justin Wegner had surgery to remove about 200 cancerous tumors in his abdomen, he reached out to his alma mater.
He had an idea, and he thought the JKB club at Naperville Central High School could help.
He'd already been through six months of intense treatments to target the rare cancer doctors discovered in June, and he'd seen the strain the whole ordeal had put on his parents, Cathy and Ed. He'd also seen the help his family received from the Ronald McDonald House at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago and he wanted to pass along that support.
"Here's a kid fighting for his life with cancer and he comes up with a way of helping others," said Barry Baldwin, JKB club sponsor. "He's sitting in bed after a double dose of chemo thinking about what can he do for the Ronald McDonald House. This is Justin. He was the kid that went about and helped other kids."
Wegner's idea turned into a gift card drive to benefit the Ronald McDonald House at Lurie, as well as the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Edward Hospital in Naperville.
"What is really great about having gift cards is that we give them to the families directly," said Kathy deVries, a Ronald McDonald House spokeswoman. "It's a great way to give back."
Once Wegner and longtime friend Mark Nowak came up with the goal, members of the JKB club stepped in. The club is a program of the JKB Experiential Education Foundation, which was formed in memory of a Florida teen who ended his life after taking steroids, and aims to teach student-athletes the leadership and good judgment to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
Wegner was a JKB member until he graduated Central in 2015 and headed to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to study business and play baseball. He has fond memories of running a bags tournament to support a JKB antibullying campaign and helping fellow club members make blankets for young hospital patients. Many current members remember Wegner and were eager to help him any way they could.
"We took the weight off his shoulders," said Naperville Central senior Dana Roscoe, a JKB member who also sits on the teen board of the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Edward.
"JKB headed the whole drive for him in his name to get more people involved."
Baldwin said he thought the club's students -- and their counterparts in JKB clubs at Naperville North and at Lake Park High School in Roselle -- would collect a respectable amount in gift cards to benefit Ronald McDonald House families, maybe $600 or $700.
By the time the drive concluded Sunday, Jan. 22, with a presentation to staff members of the Family Room at Edward, the teens had collected more than $10,000 in cards good at popular big box stores, gas stations and restaurants.
"The school has really rallied around Justin," Baldwin said. "Parents are giving just because I think they have empathy for the Wegners and what they're going through. … It has been inspirational."
Wegner, 19, said spearheading the drive was the least he could do.
"Ronald McDonald House just did so much for my family, and my parents, especially. They stayed there for all of my treatment when I was in the hospital," he said. "My parents weren't stuck sleeping in the hospital with me on those uncomfortable chairs."
Wegner said he didn't notice any symptoms of his cancer until one night about a week after he returned from his first year of college, when he woke up with a sharp pain in his chest. He was diagnosed with a type of soft cell sarcoma called a desmoplastic small round cell tumor. The condition has been reported in only about 200 patients, most of them white boys or young men between 10 and 30 years old, and it causes masses in the abdomen and other organs that affect digestion and cause pain, nausea and vomiting.
Treatments include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, and Wegner has had them all. He plans to return to Whitewater in the fall for his second year of school, so he'll need to find an infusion center nearby to continue receiving more chemotherapy. He plans a return to baseball, too, hoping to once again play catcher for the Warhawks as he did before his cancer set in.
"I should feel good enough to start working out, getting my strength back," he said after having surgery in December in Texas to remove all the tumors doctors could find. "Start swinging a bat a little bit, throwing a ball."
Until then, he said, he's grateful for all the support his family has received through the #JWEGSTRONG Foundation they formed, and happy he's found one way to give back.
"To be able to be a part of that even though I'm not still in the (JKB) program," Wegner said, "is pretty incredible."