It is the sixth evening of Hanukkah and 13-year-old Madeleine Wenger of Bethesda, Md., stares at the menorah that she and her brother, Sam, used to light with their sister, Kayla. In March 2012, Kayla succumbed to a long battle with ependymoma, a rare pediatric brain cancer. Unlike most traditional menorahs, this one is designed to look like a giant Crayola crayon box, conveying a certain playfulness and mirth. At night, there are short prayers, warm lights, and the giving of gifts.
The art of giving is one that young Madeleine has mastered, having raised nearly $15,000 for Children’s National in honor of her sister. Madeleine generously decided to forgo receiving presents at her bat mitzvah this past spring, and instead gave money to help other children facing brain tumors. She also created the “Kisses 4 Kayla” team for the 2015 Race for Hope, a 5K that benefits the National Brain Tumor Society.
When Madeleine is not giving back through philanthropy, she likes to play squash, participate in jazz dance, attend school, and engage in the BBYO, a youth group where Jewish teens develop leadership skills. “I love challenges,” she says. “In squash the ball doesn’t bounce and people think that makes it much harder, but I don’t mind that.”
For five years, Madeleine witnessed her sister Kayla fight for her life, enduring four brain surgeries, weeks of radiation, and round after round of chemotherapy. Kayla, whose photos appear throughout the Wengers’ home, lost sight in her left eye, hearing in her left ear, and eventually could not walk or smile. But that didn’t dampen her spirit. She continued to don bright shades of pink (her favorite color), hats, and jewelry. She played the violin, started a scrapbook-making business, and went tubing and zip-lining. It is these memories of Kayla that inspire Madeleine to give back. She wants other kids to know they too can help others, even in small ways.
“It’s not just about raising money,” she remarks. “You can give food, items you don’t need anymore, and your own time through volunteerism. There are so many ways to give.”
As Madeleine’s father, Eric, walks in, the sun is setting. The menorah candles will soon illuminate the darkness, and the time will come for opening gifts. “Material things are not important to me,” she says quietly. “Always being there for your family is.”