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A Mission-driven Life

St. Jude survivor Sean Kenney uses his skills and energy to help others.

By Elizabeth Jane Walker

Sean Kenney owes his existence to a hospital founded by a man of Lebanese descent. Today, this childhood cancer survivor provides succor to refugees living in that same region of the globe.

Through his work with Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, Sean assists the nearly 2 million Syrian refugees who are straining Lebanon’s fragile infrastructure.

How can one young man make a dent in an overwhelming situation that confounds the rest of the world? 

A 3-year-old Sean Kenney stands beside a Mevatron 74.

When he was 3 years old, Sean Kenney underwent treatment for his first brain tumor. Today, he helps children who also face overwhelming challenges.

Like Danny Thomas, who established St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Sean is accustomed to beating the odds. When he was only 3 years old, Sean underwent treatment at St. Jude for a rare brain tumor called juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma.

For several years, all was well. Then the tumor returned with a vengeance. The surgery required to save the sixth-grader’s life caused severe complications. Sean spent two-and-a-half years relearning how to swallow and speak.

 “I feel fortunate to have made a recovery,” says Sean, who participates in St. Jude LIFE, a study that evaluates the health of long-term survivors to help improve cancer treatment for current and future patients.

During college, Sean developed an interest in social justice issues, which led him to study and volunteer in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador.

“As someone who had a hard time speaking for a long time, I felt grateful that people could understand me in another language,” says Sean, who also speaks Spanish, French and Swahili and is learning Arabic.

After completing a two-year teaching stint in Tanzania, he earned a graduate degree and worked in Uganda and Jordan. Through his current post in Lebanon, Sean helps local organizations manage programs to support refugees.

 “It’s amazing being here in Beirut with the St. Jude connection of Danny Thomas,” Sean says. “When I reflect upon being a St. Jude patient and on the origins of St. Jude, whose founder came from this part of the world, I know I have a unique opportunity to serve here.

“It has all been possible because of the recovery St. Jude allowed me to make,” he continues. “I feel very fortunate and grateful.” 

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