Jessa Webber, left, and childhood friend Megan Desabio attended high school in Kenmore, N.Y., before enrolling at Fredonia State, where they remained friends and became sorority sisters. Webber died Jan. 6 of brain cancer.
View photo Gallery of the Pink the Rink Ceremony 2010
The roster of Pink the Rink honorees was made up of moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles, colleagues, and retirees.
And then there was Jessica Webber.
Webber – Jessa to her family and friends – died Jan. 6 after a seven-year battle with brain cancer. She was a junior business major at Fredonia State, and is the youngest of all the people being honored Saturday night at Steele Hall.
Sophomore Bryan Ross wore “J. Webber” on the back of his pink No. 7 Fredonia State sweater in honor of Jessa when the Blue Devils faced Morrisville State at 7 p.m. Afterward, Ross presented the jersey to Jessa’s brother, Matt.
Altogether, 31 jerseys were worn and presented during the post-game ceremony.
A business major from Kenmore, N.Y., Jessa left campus last fall in the middle of her fifth semester. She continued to take her classes online and, despite failing health, returned to campus in mid-December to take final exams.
“It wasn’t easy for her to get up the stairs (to the classroom),” said Barb Webber, Jessa’s mother. “But she was determined and wanted to finish what she had started. The professors were good about everything.”
Tumor found at age 14
Jessa was a freshman at Kenmore West High School when health concerns first surfaced. She left school for about a week with what friends thought was a sinus infection. That’s when doctors found a brain tumor.
If she was scared, she never let on.
Hockey player Brian Ross presents the Jessa Webber jersey he wore during Saturday's Pink the Rink game to her brother, Matt, following the event. Ironically, the Blue Devils scored seven goals in its victory over Morrisville.
“When I heard ‘brain tumor,’ I didn’t know what it meant,” said Megan Desabio, a childhood friend and Fredonia State sorority sister. “I don’t think Jessa knew either. When she came back to school, she was the same happy person.”
Over the next seven years, Jessa, a former high school cheerleader, went through a battery of tests and cancer treatments. Her mother remembers only one stretch of 11 months over the seven years that Jessa wasn’t involved in some sort of procedure. She had surgeries, five all together, and wore a chemotherapy device known as a central line, a tube designed to pump medication into her blood stream through a vein in her arm.
Last fall, she began experimental treatment at Duke University while continuing her studies at Fredonia State. Her education and her sorority – Sigma Kappa -- were two of the most important features in her life.
“Her memorization wasn’t there because of the tumor,” Barb Webber said, “so she had to study hard, study some more, and re-read everything. She dedicated most of her time to her school work. I think that’s what kept her going and it gave her the drive to keep trying. She never, ever gave up.”
Her illness opened doors
Her sorority sister, Megan Desabio, said she met Jessa when both girls were in the seventh grade in the Kenmore school district. “She was unbiased,” Desabio said. “There was no drama with Jessa, and she was a good person with a good heart.”
Even after the tumor was discovered, Jessa remained empathetic toward others.
“The first time I visited her in the hospital, it was the summer when she was 14,” Megan recalls. “I remember feeling bad for her and saying, ‘It isn’t fair that you’re in here.’ She turned to me and another friend and said, ‘Guys, don’t worry about me, I’ll be alright. Instead think about all the little kids that are in here. They don’t deserve to be sick. Think about them.’ ”
The girls remained friends at Kenmore West, where Jessa was a member of the National Honor Society and senior class president among the 420 graduates. Required to give a speech at commencement, she spoke not of being unfortunate to have cancer but rather how her illness opened doors to her.
“She talked about how she got to meet people, and how she got to see their helping, caring side,” her mother said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”
Jessa’s college plans hit a potential snag when doctors at the Roswell Cancer Institute and at Women’s and Children’s Hospital, both in Buffalo, told her they preferred she stay closer to home. But she wanted to go to Fredonia State to study speech pathology, and she got her way.
Entering as a freshman in the fall of 2007, she threw herself into her studies and into Greek life. She pledged Sigma Kappa and eventually emerged as a campus leader. She served as sorority foundation chair, was voted onto Sigma Kappa’s executive board, and took part in an Alzheimer’s awareness walk and in the annual Relay for Life, a charity she began supporting while in high school.
“She focused on her studies and her sorority,” her mother said. “She just loved sorority.”
Dreamed of Fredonia State degree
Last Oct. 17, several Sigma Kappa women attended a men’s club hockey game as a group wearing jerseys loaned to them by some of the players. It was also Jessa’s 20th birthday and it was one of her last good nights on campus. A few days later, she had another seizure caused by the tumor.
“She would lose feeling in her fingers, and sometimes she had a hard time talking,” Megan Desabio said.
It was then that Jessa had to leave campus and return home. Once her condition stabilized, she contacted her professors and arranged to finish the semester online – save for the trip back to campus to take finals. She also registered for classes at a community college near home.
“She was going to finish out the year at junior college,” her mom said. “She was hoping the doctors at Duke would make her better. Her dream was to go back to Fredonia and get her degree.”
After she returned home, friends of the Webber family planned a benefit in Jessa’s honor with the hope of raising money to help defray the costs of the trips to Duke. Wanting a new outfit for the event, Jessa talked her mom into a shopping trip. She also had friends over to the house -- Megan Desabio and other former Ken West classmates. As they departed, Megan recalls, Jessa and the others talked about getting together again in another day or two.
That night, her health took a turn for the worse.
“It was a Sunday,” Barb Webber said. “She died on Wednesday … She endured so much and never complained. But the night when I rushed her to the hospital, she looked up at me and said “Mom, I’m so tired.’ "
Two profs step forward
News of Jessa’s passing spread at internet speed. Texts and e-mails were sent out from campus and from beyond. At about the same time, Fredonia State men’s hockey coach Jeff Meredith was still getting out the word about a new twist to this year’s Pink the Rink.
People wanting to honor a loved one would be able to make a $250 donation to the American Cancer Society for the right to have the loved one’s named printed on the back of a jersey. Each player would then be assigned a jersey to wear at the Morrisville State game.
A Kenmore West alum who had heard about Jessa passing saw the Pink the Rink story and e-mailed Dan Gillis, a Fredonia State student from Lewiston, N.Y. and a friend of Jessa’s. Gillis in turn contacted Meredith and told him about his idea of purchasing a Pink the Rink jersey in Jessa’s honor. The only hang-up, Gillis explained, was not yet having the money to pay for it.
“Coach was really good about it,” Gillis said. “He said he would reserve a jersey for us and we could work something out later.”
“Later” did not take long. A Fredonia State professor approached Meredith the following day and said he and his wife, also a professor and a cancer survivor, wanted to make an anonymous donation to Pink the Rink. The prof told Meredith: “If someone doesn’t have the money for a jersey, use our money to pay for it.”
Just like that, the American Cancer Society had another donor and Pink the Rink had its youngest heroine.
“Jessa was never an attention-getter,” said Barb Webber when asked how her daughter might react to having her name on the back of a hockey jersey. “She preferred to stay in the background, so I think she’d be at a loss for words.”
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