Four Forever Friends

High school graduation is a meaningful milestone for most, but it’s even more
special for young women who’ve faced challenges and come out on top.

By Lynne Golodner

Although they can’t quite picture what it’s going to be like to be geographically apart, Danielle McKay, Haley Wallace, Paris Davis and Je’Nailya Belew are ready to face it.

That’s in large part due to the life skills they’ve learned in Kids Kicking Cancer’s AYA: Teen Empowerment Program, where the four friends, who met when they were very young, learned cooking, banking, self-care, internet safety and more to prepare them for adulthood.

“This program doesn’t end after our students graduate. We will continue to support them as needed and they are welcome to come back and be the light to the team” says Niga McCamey, LLMSW, Program Specialist in charge of the AYA program.

The four friends consider each other family after all they’ve been through together.

Danielle, Haley, Paris and Je’Nailya met through Kids Kicking Cancer (KKC), all part of the program for various reasons: Danielle’s sister Grace had T-cell lymphoma, Haley is herself a cancer survivor, Paris was a sibling participant as her brothers endured Sickle Cell Disease and Je’Nailya faced it herself.

Where once they were a support system for one another, creating the safe setting they needed to let loose and just be kids, now they are connected digitally, hoping to stay in touch when Danielle heads to Morgan State University to study theater arts and communication, Haley to Jackson College on a bowling scholarship, Paris to Wayne State University for nursing and midwifery and Je’Nailya to a cosmetology career.

“It’s the type of friendship where you knew you were going to be with these people for the rest of your life,” says Je’Nailya.

“They’re the only ones that understand,” explains her mother, Wilma Clay. “The program has become one big whole family. It’s really amazing.”

When these girls started with KKC, they were young and navigating the confusing and scary paths of disease and wellness. The program gave them support, they say, and power, as they learned to harness their breath and control the way they met challenging situations.

KKC grew alongside them. As they became teens, KKC became a global program referred to as the Heroes Circle, helping children around the world with any illness. But there was always a place for them, as teens helping with the Cowboys Kicking Cancer Annual Event or guiding younger children entering the program. Danielle says the best part of the AYA program was that she could just be herself and talk to peers when they gathered on a Monday night.

“I see my girls using the power breathing techniques on a regular basis, whether they’re conscious of it or not,” says Aletha McKay, Danielle’s mother. “We’ve all learned how to deal with stressful situations better.”

“The AYA: Teen Empowerment Program has inspired me to be a lot more creative than I was,” says Haley. It’s also provided volunteer hours that many high
schools require.

Niga saw the bond between the four teens right from the start. After drive-through programs during COVID, the four would linger in the parking lot, masked and safely distanced, just catching up. It’s like they never get enough of the bond and connection they share.

“You could feel the love they share for each other,” says Niga. “They tell us they feel like they’re more prepared for the world thanks to this program. I’m excited to see them flourish and go to the next level. They all have their own separate talents, and it’s amazing. I’m sure they’re going to do great things.”

And now, they’re happy to pay it forward to kids just entering KKC and joining the Heroes Circle.

“If a kid is struggling and needs one-on-one, they’ll ask us,” Haley says. “We have a great time welcoming in new students. You can see how nervous they are at first and after everyone welcomes them in, they start to brighten up a little bit.”

Haley remembers those early nerves all too well. On her first day with KKC, she pulled a hat over her face and huddled in a corner.

But it didn’t take long before she met the girls who would become her lifelong companions, and the instructors had to lovingly separate them because they
couldn’t stop talking.

“We’re all goofy,” says Paris. “Always smiles and laughter when we’re together. Everyone is so comfortable to be around, they’re always there for you. They make me feel loved.”

“We all made a promise to stay in touch,” says Paris. “We say, ‘You can’t get rid of me that easily. We’re stuck together from the very beginning.’”

“These girls have grown up together,” says Cindy Cohen, Global Program Director, who feels like “the proud mamas who watched them all grow up.”

“I’m proud of them,” she says. “They’re good people. I’m proud of how they’ve taken the adversity they faced and made the best of what life gives you, not only overcoming, but growing from it. They celebrate with one another and, sadly, they mourn with one another. It’s a family.”

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