// by Lisa Szukhent //
Photos by // Jenny Lane Studios //
Although I was only 8 years old, I can remember the sound of my mother wailing as she collapsed to the floor and my father on the phone struggling through tears telling family the tragic news. My sister at just 3 years old had suddenly passed away. She had been hit by a car. From there my parents…my family…would never be the same.
Once I was a mother myself, I would question my own mom about how she continued on after losing my sister. I would find myself telling her it was something I doubt I could ever survive. Never a loss such as that. As my mom would go to answer me, I could still see that fresh pain of grief in her eyes as if she were losing my sister all over again. She would tell me she loved me and say, “I had to go on….I had you.” It was what kept her going through the pain. Her purpose. With a fund named after my sister providing so much for children in need, her legacy would, and has, lived on.
Fast-forward almost 40 years as I sat watching them, this couple who had endured the unthinkable, as they were honored by Catholic Social Services. The fund they had created in my sisterʼs honor had become the oldest and largest private fund for the purpose of helping children. As they stood hand in hand to accept their award, my fatherʼs words struck me hard. “Sometimes out of tragedy, even the worst tragedy, something good can come.”
The loss of a child is a pain that only those who are part of such a somber club understand. The world they once knew and planned as a parent has been shattered. Where do they go from there? How do they continue to go on? For three local mothers, going on has become a labor of love and a mission of the heart.
Melissa Schummer, Cynthia Duncanson and Eleni (Tina) Eisenbeis can tell you that their worlds came together in ways they never thought. And their mission is one they have bonded over. Each having lost their youngest child, they have made it their heartsʼ crusade to have their childrenʼs legacy live on by making a difference.
Melissa Schummer – McKenna’s Squad
June 2016 should have been a time of celebrating the end of another school year in the Schummer household, but instead it brought the unexpected news of cancer. Young McKenna had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, and in March of 2018 she lost her courageous fight at just 11 years old.
“She was such a cool kid. I wish everyone just really had a chance to get to know her,” Melissa says. During her battle McKenna found a passion for makeup, one she wanted to share with other young patients in her same situation. Her vision was to create a place where young people like herself could feel pretty, strong and confident at their darkest time. McKennaʼs Beauty Bar was born, with the first ribbon cutting held on June 23 at Detroit Childrenʼs Hospital and a second in the works for Hurley Medical Center. Following through on McKennaʼs dream is a labor of love for Melissa. Through supportive friends and family, the selfless heart of a brave young girl will continue to touch children throughout the state.
“Our lives continue to be an emotional roller coaster, for we feel such sadness that we have to go on living without our special angel. I would do anything to have her here still,” Melissa says. “Yet we know that keeping her memory alive is through keeping her beauty bar alive.” The papers have been signed to become a nonprofit organization, and McKennaʼs Squad is actively looking to partner up cosmetic companies to help with the beauty bar products. Life has not been at all what the Schummer family had thought, and the two courageous years of struggle their daughter endured was at times unbearable….although McKenna herself never complained.
Still Melissa finds peace in the dream her daughter helped create. “In spite of our loss, we look forward to keeping her legacy alive through this beauty bar and many more to come.”
Cynthia Duncanson – Luke Duncanson Legacy
They often say time heals all wounds, but when it comes to grief, time often stands still. Four years after losing her son Luke to suicide, Cynthia will tell you that life has gone on, but no amount of time will ease the pain of losing her son. Within weeks of Lukeʼs passing, she moved forward and became vocal about the reality of suicide and began planning ways to make sure that young people knew they mattered, that there was always someone there to listen and reach out to. The Luke Duncanson Legacy Memorial Foundation evolved to empower, educate and equip young adults for the realization of their life purpose and value.
Friends of Lukeʼs have taken the mission to heart each year with events focused on honoring their friend. The yearly LAX for Luke lacrosse game between Grand Blanc and Powers Catholic is especially important to the family as a time to remember Luke and reiterate the purpose of his foundation. Cynthia also found great comfort at this yearʼs Grand Blanc High School graduation ceremony when classmates of Lukeʼs donned orange ribbons on their graduation gowns, showing the Duncanson family that his memory lives on.
Cynthia eloquently compares the tragedy to the shattering of a crystal vase representing life. “I read once about Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. This repair method celebrates each artifactʼs unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. This is how I see that the positive changes have created a new beauty to my piece of art. I have learned to embrace life and appreciate moments and people so much more. The love and support that have been poured out to me and my family are a powerful glue to help put the pieces back together.” Although she admits that grief still brings her to her knees at times, the mission of the foundation assures her that Luke is still part of her world, and she knows she will be able to embrace him on the other side one day.
Eleni (Tina) Eisenbeis – London Strong Foundation
If the natural order of the cycle of life were to take place, we would find ourselves expecting grandparents to pass away first, then parents and then children. No parents should ever have to bury their child, yet four months ago Eleni found herself doing just that. A tragedy at a waterpark left the Eisenbeis family with a life turned inside out and existing in a space that would hold only imaginings of what could have been and pictures of what was.
“February 27, 2018, rewrote the laws of nearly everything in our universe we called the Eisenbeis family,” Eleni says. Almost immediately Eleni knew she had to become an advocate to ensure the undetected heart condition that took her young daughter Londonʼs life, as well as the training and equipment that may have saved it, became commonly known and available. No other parent should suffer the incredible reality of grief she found herself in.
What she found guiding her through this process were the words of her beautiful child. In videos and pictures, Londonʼs inspirational words and loving way of looking at life were fueling this crusade. A stirring statement of “Set Your Dreams” has become the motto for the first annual 5K run/walk on July 26 for the London Strong Foundation. This foundation was created to bring awareness to heart conditions and increase chance of survival by emphasizing the importance of CPR and AEDs. Eleniʼs mission has been a nonstop flurry of activity, and perhaps thatʼs keeping her focused and not consumed by the grief.
Eleni says, “Everything becomes a paradox. Iʼm sure each of us in our own way feel that we were handed a lifetime prison sentence for something we did not deserve, or are equipped to handle, or able and willing to accept. It feels as though the world is moving on, but we remain right where London left off.”
After going through some of the darkest and most trying of times battling osteosarcoma, 11-year-old McKenna Schummer found her passion for makeup. Her infectious smile and amazing attitude have inspired so many. Now, in honor of McKenna, the Beauty Bar is her legacy left to help other children at the hospital where she received her treatments.
Luke Duncanson Legacy – charitysmith.org/memorial-funds/luke-duncanson-legacy/
After facing the immeasurable pain of losing our beautiful son to suicide, we have made it our mission to make a difference in the lives of our youth.
Luke Duncanson Legacy // CharitySmith Nonprofit Foundation
13100 Filly Lane // Truckee, CA 96161
London Strong Foundation – londonstrongfoundation.org
Bringing awareness to heart conditions and increasing chance of survival by emphasizing the importance of CPR/AED.
We as humans develop coping mechanisms for all types of situations or tragedies that may occur in our lives. Most would argue the pain of losing a child is by far the most unbearable challenge anyone could face. The mission to keep a legacy of love and hope alive born from the ultimate loss is admirable. Itʼs a strength most of us would doubt they had without being faced with this type of reality. Thereʼs pain in their purpose, a goal in their bravery and a mission derived from the support of family, community and one another. It’s clear to see that strength cloaked in grace is the backbone to coping for these amazing ladies….these moms….these angels.
The story of these mothers is one with so much more to tell and so many more lives to touch. They are surrounded by “angels” making their missions a reality. I am honored that award-winning film director and writer Nicole Bowers Wallace will be releasing a documentary titled “Legacy of Love,” on which I will be joining as producer to continue telling their story. The premiere will be held this fall in Flint.