Why I Give: Mike and Cheryl Van Laeken

Van Laeken Family
Van Laeken Family

When faced with the greatest trial of their lives, Mike and Cheryl Van Laeken made the choice to turn their heartbreak into action. Their journey began on October 22, 2008 when their daughter Makenna was born with what was initially believed to be an infection. Instead, the couple from Kimmel in northern Indiana learned their baby was experiencing acute liver failure due to an extremely rare condition called neonatal hemochromatosis

Makenna was soon transferred to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, where they met with Dr. Jean Molleston, director of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition. To the couple’s surprise, Dr. Molleston had been following Makenna’s case even before she arrived. “Dr. Molleston eased our minds and held our hands seven days a week during Makenna’s stay at Riley.”  Despite her valiant fight, Makenna passed away 42 days after she was born. “We needed to turn our grief into action,” said Cheryl. The couple set an ambitious goal: they wanted to establish an endowment fund in Makenna’s name by raising $100,000 earmarked for liver disease research at Riley. “We wanted this gift to live on, even though Makenna couldn’t,” Cheryl explains.

As soon as word got out about their fundraising goal, support and money began coming in. The couple took up collections at the school where Cheryl taught. Family and friends made donations on Makenna’s birthday. Their biggest event was an annual haystack dinner at their church, which has grown into a $10,000 fundraiser. In just five years, the couple reached their goal of $100,000. Dr. Molleston believes the Makenna Van Laeken Endowment Fund for Liver Research will help save young lives. “It is increasingly difficult to get funding for rare diseases. This endowment will give our research a big boost,” Dr. Molleston said.

The Van Laekens now have a healthy, happy one- year-old daughter, Brynn, who will always know her sister thanks to the courageous steps her parents took to keep Makenna’s memory alive. “Mike and Cheryl are role models for anyone faced with tragedy,” said Dr. Molleston.” I’ve met a lot of incredible families at Riley and worked with many very sick kids but I’ve never met a couple quite like them. They truly turned their personal tragedy into tangible hope for countless other families.”

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