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Injury, illness can’t hold back this future teacher

In forefront of school activities

When Emily VanKeuren talks about the importance of being grateful, it’s a concept with which she is very familiar.

“It’s knowing that not everything that will come at you is going to be good, that not everything that happens is going to be positive,” said Emily, a senior. “Being grateful is trusting that even when there is something bad, there is something good that will follow.”

A Panther since kindergarten, Emily’s participation in volleyball, basketball and softball was sidelined her sophomore year by a torn ACL, a common yet painful knee ligament injury that, in her case, required surgery.

Student Leaders is a series dedicated to students that go above and beyond to serve their school, peers and community.

Her junior year, the other ACL suffered a tear, and that too meant a visit to a surgeon. It was while recovering from that injury that Emily was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that starts in white blood cells.

“I’ve had my fair share of the bad, but through both my ACL tears I made good friends,” she said. “I met so many people and I’ve been to so many places that before I couldn’t even imagine going.

“Life is so short and things can happen literally in an instant.”

Principal Steve Gough calls Emily a leader. He recalled seeing her  struggle on crutches to get up a staircase at school after one of her surgeries. “I said, ‘We can get you an elevator key,’” Gough recalled, “and she just said ‘I’m all right.’”

And she is all right. She really is.

Her last regular cancer scan indicated that she’s still in the clear, she said. And though the memory of “such long days of being just so sick that every day was a bad day” are still with her, so too is the lesson she learned “to be comfortable asking other people for help. I really grew through that.”

Emily VanKeuren, center, at a February 2017 Panther basketball game played in her honor. She is pictured with, from left, dad Steve VanKeuren, mom Pam VanKeuren, and sisters Kendra and Rachel

Energetic and Engaged

Emily has been her class vice-president since sophomore year, helping to plan daddy-daughter dances, spirit weeks, Homecoming and more. She helped bring an inspirational speaker to school following a car crash that killed one Sparta High School student and injured another, as well as two Comstock Park students.

This year she helped organize the March 14 student walkout following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

‘Being grateful is trusting that even when there is something bad, there is something good that will follow.’ — senior  Emily VanKeuren

She said feeling safe in school is important to her, and it’s no wonder. The top academic achiever has been through too much to have her life shortened by a mass shooting, something she said she has imagined happening at her school.

She’s an avid reader (Harry Potter is her favorite), and she enjoys hanging out with her two sisters, Rachel, a student at MSU; and Kendra, a sophomore at Comstock Park.

“I’ve never been shy,” Emily said. “I’m not afraid to voice my opinion or stand up for what I believe in, or to help support others as well.”

Emily VanKeuren, second from left, in March 2017 with friends (from left) Mackenzie Broekstra, Emma Clawson, Mallory Prangley and Molly Ketner

Looking Far Afield

Now she’s looking forward to studying abroad while in college. Emily said she has a big interest in seeing the world, sparked by trips to Montana for a camp with other young people with cancer, to Costa Rica with a school group, and to South Carolina last summer with her family.

This summer she will head with a school group to Ireland, Scotland and England, and to Hawaii with her family as part of the Make-a-Wish program.

Her broadened world view will serve her well with plans to be an elementary school teacher. She’s headed to Grand Valley State University in the fall.

“I read “Wonder” about two years ago and it made me want to be that fun teacher,” she said.

And where does she see herself after college?

“As an adventurous person, as someone who says yes to new things, and who tries to see things from other people’s perspectives,” Emily said.

“And as a person who recognizes that even though someone else might not be going through the hard time you’re going through, it’s a hard time for them.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.


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  1. I’ve known Emily for years. She is such an inspirational young woman. With her drive and determination I think she will be an amazing teacher, coach whatever she chooses.


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