Young Angel Among Us changes Senator Kirk's life

By Gary Brode |, Jennifer Roscoe |

Published 01/30 2014 11:24AM

Updated 08/26 2014 10:07PM

Update: 10:01 pm, 8/25/14, Monday
CHAMPAIGN -- Two friends who share a similar experience got together for a friendly competition. The goal is to reach out and help others.

In January, we learned about Senator Mark Kirk's special bond with 12-year old Jackson Cunningham. Both suffered strokes. Jackson was the senator's Angel Among Us and now there's a follow up to the story.

Kirk was in Champaign to race Cunningham. Cunningham is a diehard Illini fan, so the senator wanted to get his friend on the field. It's his own way of saying thanks for the encouragement. As Jackson Cunningham crosses the finish line, Senator Mark Kirk marvels at his friend's progress.

Kirk says, "When I first met him, he certainly couldn't run. Now he can run. It just reminds everybody what rehab can do."

It's an unlikely friendship; a senator and a 7th grader. Then again, they didn't meet under typical circumstances.

Jackson says, "It means a lot to see him move around because I know it's been a big goal of his."

Two years ago Kirk suffered a stroke. Cunningham had one a year before that.

Kirk says, "Jackson wrote to me and he said, 'It's not so bad and you're going to do pretty well.'"

Jackson says "I knew what it felt like so I sent him the letter to see if he would send back, so he could realize how I could relate."

They sent letters back and forth, offering encouragement as each went through the rigors of rehab.

Kirk says, "I've dramatically increased my walking speed. I was even walking some to try and beat Jackson today."

In front of family, friends and the UI football team, the two raced. Kirk could only make it a few yards, but it was more about sending a message to others in their situation.

Kirk says, "If you have a stroke, it's not over."

Senator Kirk's next goal is to walk the steps at Willis Tower in November. Cunningham will be on the field for the Illini's opening game this weekend.

If you do suffer a stroke, getting to the hospital quickly could mean life or death. The National Stroke Association wants people to act F.A.S.T. if they notice the signs: if one side of the face droops or an arm drifts downward, if speech sounds strange or is being slurred, these can all be warnings. If you notice any of the symptoms call 911 immediately.
Original: 10:15 pm, 1/30/14, Thursday
CHAMPAIGN -- This isn't necessarily what Jackson Cunningham wants to do on a Friday afternoon, but he knows it's what he has to do. The 11-year old had a stroke three years ago. Doctors have no idea why he had a blood clot. He lost all control on one side of his body. His speech was a slur, but Jackson is making a comeback.

He said, "I actually hope to move my fingers."

It's life-changing therapy, but one of Jackson's speech exercises actually changed someone else's life. He wrote a letter to his U.S. Senator who also had a stroke. Jackson knew exactly how he felt.

He wrote, "My name is Jackson Cunningham. I live in Oakwood, Illinois, and I am nine years old. Last year, in February 2011, I was eight years old and had a stroke. I was healthy kid. The stroke was on the right side of my brain. I couldn't move a muscle on my left side. Here's some advice. Do not give up on yourself. All the hard work is worth it. Sincerely, Jackson Cunningham."

Senator Mark Kirk said the letter stood out because of it's quality and the shock of a child having a stroke. He wrote back.

"Dear Jackson, We appear to have a lot in common. I was born in Champaign, Illinois, about 45 years before you. We have both survived a stroke. Keep up your spirits. Your pen pal, Senator Mark Kirk, U.S. Senate."

They kept exchanging letters, swapping tips on how to keep Central Illinois zombie-free, as both battled to regain control over their bodies.

"After my stroke, I was unable to even sit up in bed," remembered Kirk. "I would just keel over, really unable to walk. Then one day, I was able to walk."

Kirk's inspiration was a kid who never says quit.

"When I first saw him, he was not able to run. Now that he's able to run, I want to run."

The pen pals became friends. They saw each other last summer on the Senator's turf, touring the Senate floor and the basement.

Jackson said, "I think it's pretty awesome to be friends with a Senator."

Three months later, they were on Jackson's turf. Kirk came to watch Jackson do some therapy in between meetings.

The Senator said, "He's an example to me that he's hanging in there."

An example of strength, commitment and heart. It helped get a U.S. Senator back to where he belonged, one step and one letter at a time.

"Never give up on yourself, even if you're knocked down at a very young age," said Kirk. "You can be as good as Jackson."

Kirk's next goal is to run from the Hart Senate building to the Capitol. He wants Jackson to be there when it happens, running beside him.

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