Editor’s note: This is a speech that Elana gave at Congregation Keter Torah this past Shabbat, during the annual Chai Lifeline’s Friends N’ Fun Teaneck Weekend in memory of Sari Ort, z”l.
Shabbat Shalom. I’d like to begin by thanking Rabbi Baum, Mr. and Mrs. Ort and the entire Teaneck community for welcoming us, the campers of Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special into your community for this Shabbaton. My name is Elana Laila Koenig and I am an 11-year-old from New York City.
My story begins 3 1/2 years ago, but really it began when I was a small child. Growing up, I always dreamed of being a singer, actress and dancer. I was gifted from Hashem and I loved performing and getting up on stage. August 2016 was just another normal summer, full of singing, dancing and having fun with friends at camp. But when my leg started hurting, my mother got concerned. Then I began to limp, and that was the last straw. My mother got very nervous and rushed me to the emergency room.
That’s when my world changed. That’s when every dream I had was starting to be questioned. That’s when I heard the words that no one wants to hear. The doctor took us into the room that no one wants to ever go into. It seems like an ordinary room, but how many people’s lives have been changed there? It’s still and quiet, and that’s where my doctor told me he diagnosed a type of bone cancer called Ewing Sarcoma. Going into that doctor’s appointment, I had no idea that my life was going to be flipped upside down and twisted and turned. I went through days in the hospital at Memorial Sloan Kettering with horrible chemotherapy and too many painful needles. When my hair started to fall out, I was devastated. I was always nauseous. It was horrible. In November of that year, I had to have surgery. I was so young I didn’t even know what surgery was. It was a 12-hour bone reconstructive surgery. After that it was followed by one of the worst things ever. I had to spend six months in a spica cast covering both legs from the waist down. I couldn’t move at all.
The moment I came out of surgery and saw the cast around what felt like my entire body, I thought I could never accomplish my dreams and that my time as a dancer was over. But while I was recovering, I learned about Chai Lifeline—this incredible organization that made everything just so much better. Volunteers came to visit me at the hospital and brought presents and toys to play with. They kept me company and brought such light into what was my gloomy life at that point.
I arrived in Camp Simcha that summer still in that cast. I didn’t know what to expect—how people would treat me or how I could enjoy camp when I couldn’t run and dance like I used to. But everything in Camp Simcha blew me away. Every day there was another amazing surprise with the most incredible counselors and activities. I danced in front of the entire camp and on the dance floor during every meal without worrying what anyone else would think. And for once, what I was going through was totally normal. I wasn’t the 9-year-old girl with cancer…but just a 9-year-old girl who also happened to be a superstar. My Camp Simcha friends became some of my best friends and I looked forward to the next summer from the second camp ended.
The song that got me through all of the hard times was the “Fight Song,” by Rachel Platten. The song talks about how we can take control of our own lives and prove that we’re still alright even if things are hard. Chai Lifeline and Camp Simcha made me believe that I was a fighter. I was stronger than I thought and that I didn’t have to give up on my dreams. The counselors at camp believed in me. They are my cheerleaders through life.
This past summer was my third summer at camp and it was incredible. The worst part of camp is…well that it doesn’t happen all year long. But Shabbatons like this one help make the school year feel a little less long. They make time between camp just a little shorter. They remind me of the amazing memories from camp and make me even more excited for next summer.
There were times that I thought all of my dreams were gone, but today I know that’s not true. I have been lucky enough to perform different songs on stages including Radio City Music Hall, and plan to follow my dreams to America’s Got Talent. Guess what? I even have an audition there tonight after Shabbat. Wish me luck!
Looking at me today, you might never know all of the things I have been through. I became an ambassador for many organizations, singing and making speeches even outside New York and I am planning on continuing to do so for other children going through challenging times.
The greatest part is that this is just the beginning because I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me!
Chai Lifeline Warrior Elana Laila Koenig is 11 years old and lives in New York City. Learn more about Chai Lifeline at www.chailifeline.org.