Variety of Illinois

Jackson Cunningham, from Oakwood, Illinois, is no ordinary 11 year old. He suffered a stroke when he was 8 that left him unable to move a muscle on his left side. The resulting foot drop and his overall instability caused Jackson to frequently stumble and trip. Jackson was at high risk of falling and sustaining serious injuries that could have increased the chance for impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions and without sufficient exercise, muscles atrophy and lose strength and mass, which can lead to significant loss of limb function

Denied by insurance, the Cunningham’s turned to Variety of Illinois, which granted Jackson a WalkAide Functional Electrical Stimulation System, which improved his walking ability.

Jackson became one of the 100 pediatric stroke patients the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago sees each year. Jackson and his family were highly motivated and dedicated to the rehabilitation process – not only for Jackson, but for another special stroke victim — Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, whose stroke came a year later. Jackson had been through hundreds of hours of rehab, and knew exactly what the Senator would be facing, so he wrote a letter letting the Senator know that he was going to be okay. “Do not give up on yourself. All the hard work is worth it. RIC will make you work hard, but you’ll get lots of things back fast.” Jackson wrote.

Jackson’s letter-writing was the brain child of his speech therapist, who used the exercise to help him relearn cognitive skills. To his surprise, the Senator wrote back and not only commented on what they have in common but offered his own words of encouragement, “My mother used to say: ‘Socks up! Little Cabbage!’ which is another way of saying ‘Keep your spirits up!’”

That Pen Pal campaign was the beginning of their friendship. After several letters back and forth, the Senator and his young supporter met at RIC when the Senator was still in a wheelchair and Jackson was back at RIC, when Jackson received a cast on his right arm, designed to make him use improve and use his left arm. He called it the “thumbs up” cast. Throughout both their long recoveries, Jackson and Senator Kirk championed each other often until they had the opportunity to meet.

“Dear Pen Pal,” Jackson wrote, “Yesterday was an amazing day! It was very cool that I got to meet you and it would be cool to see the Senate floor like you offered. Keep working hard so you can show me the Senate floor!!”

When Jackson became discouraged as he missed playing baseball, Senator Kirk reassured him, “Jackson,” he wrote, “I expect you’d do absolutely everything your doctors and PT folks say. And if you don’t, you’ll have to testify before the United States Senate.”

Throughout the over 30 letters the two exchanged, the most inspiring from Jackson was a five-second video of him running for the first time since his stroke. Senator Kirk said, “My great dream became to run alongside him.”

This sensational story was picked up by People Magazine on September 30, 2013 called, “An Amazing Friendship: Dear Senator, I had a Stroke Too,” by Sandra Sobiera J. Westfall. NBC Nightly News also ran this beautiful story.”

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