Local teen rallies community around cancer battle

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A mere 12-year-old, Jessie Rees preached “Never Ever Give Up” (NEGU) in her heroic battle against childhood cancer.  Sixteen-year-old Sayville teen Matthew Zender, who also adopted NEGU as his battle cry, is fighting his own battle with cancer, osteosarcoma in his leg. Matt has undergone extensive chemotherapy.  He faces the possible amputation of his leg.  But Matt is not alone.  Team Matt Zender has grown into an army. That army consists of the fencing team he captains, the Sayville High School Band, his two siblings (the other two parts of their triplet team), his parents, Sally and Mark Zender, and the entire community. Matt’s dad, band teacher, and fencing coach are interviewed below. All have stepped up to form a circle of love around Matt, a young man whose inner joy lights up a room.  All thought we were helping Matt.  What we learned is that Matt is helping us.  Matt is making us a community. For together we fight! We fight for Matt!  Join our army at gofundme.com/mattzender.

How has your reaching out to family, friends and community for support helped Matt and your family manage his care?

Mark Zender: We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from our family, friends and community. The responses we have received have involved all areas of our lives and have been phenomenal. Matthew did well with surgery to replace much of his lower leg and knee. He continues to progress through his chemotherapy and is working to keep up with his schoolwork through home tutoring. Reaching out through social media has allowed us to keep everyone apprised of his progress and has enabled us to remain in contact with his well-wishers and supporters. Social media has helped us not only care for Matthew, but also his triplet siblings, including carpooling and support at events when we are tied up at the hospital with Matthew. Hearing from so many has helped bolster his spirits and realize he is not alone in his fight.

As Matt’s fencing coach, what lesson do you hope Matt and your team take with them into adulthood about the importance of “showing up” for your teammates?

Jill Brown (fencing coach): I hope my team will take with them a sense of responsibility towards others, that when people come together they can create change.  We don’t have to be in another person’s shoes, or have walked the path they’re traveling, to extend compassion. Compassion is the only ingredient needed to light the way for us to follow.  My hope is that the fencing team will continue to offer compassion to others as they move into adulthood. For Matt, as he moves into his own adulthood, I hope he remembers he was never alone, and that an entire community and then some rallied for his well-being. I hope he will have peace and health and love in his life. 

As its conductor, you’ve made supporting Matt a priority for the Sayville High School Band. How do you  think rallying support helps Matt and all your students?  

Kerri Van Boxel (band teacher):  I think it’s so important to teach our students to be kind, caring individuals. Many of the students in the band program have been together since they were fifth graders. We are like a family. When one of us is suffering, we are all suffering. When one of us is fighting, we all fight. When I shared the news about Matt and how I wanted us to come together to show our support, the students were 100 percent on board. The students felt good about supporting Matt and his family during this difficult time. I think it was important for Matt to know that the students in the band were thinking about him and supporting him in his fight. We felt proud to wear our “Team Matt” shirts to show our support during football games and parades. I hope that having our support helped Matt get through some of the tough times. 

What person, group or organization’s response to Matt has been unexpected to you and your family?  

Zender: We have been blown away by the support and assistance of the Sayville Fencing Team and the greater Suffolk Fencing community. Coach Jill Brown has carried the flag in coordinating fundraisers for Matthew, and has spearheaded efforts to keep Matt active and involved with his teammates while he undergoes therapy. Matt is a captain of the Sayville Fencing Team. He is passionate about the sport and has enjoyed leading his teammates. The response from his team and other Suffolk fencing teams has been astounding. He has also had tremendous support from the Sayville School District, the Sayville music community and especially Mrs. Kerri Van Boxel, who coordinated a fundraiser in support of Matt. Matt attends both fencing and music events whenever he is home from the hospital and his condition allows. There have been so many other supporters; I wish I could mention them all.

What is one thing about Matt that makes him so special to you?

Brown:  The one thing about Matt that makes him so special to me is how he makes others feel. He brings with him joy. He is funny, smart and caring, and has an abundance of personality, but for me, it’s how he lights up a room with joy when he walks into it.  He makes everyone around him feel good.  Really how the community has responded to Matt has everything to do with him as a person.  Everyone loves Matt. Everyone respects Matt as a human being. He has touched many lives in his 16 years. This sweet kid and his family deserve better days ahead.

What is one thing about Matt that makes him so special to you?  

Van Boxel: Matt is one of the most kind and generous students I have ever had. He is always willing to help and goes above and beyond. No matter what Matt is going through, he keeps smiling.  He is an inspiration not only to his classmates, but to the entire community as well. 

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