The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did a story today on 2004 Jefferson Award winner Nancy Buck:
It would have been so easy, and completely understandable, for Nancy Buck to slide into the dark depths of despair when her 2 1/2-year-old nephew Kevin Kowalcyk died from E. coli infection in August 2001. Instead, the Grove City 10th-grader funneled her grief into much-needed action.
After learning that Kevin’s death might have been prevented if her family had been more aware of the risks of food-borne illnesses like E. coli, Buck asked her health teacher at Grove City High School if she could talk to classmates about food safety. She ended up giving about 30 presentations to Grove City freshmen during home economics class over the next three years.
And that was just the beginning.
Buck also helped circulate a petition in the spring of her sophomore year in support of the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act of 2002, which would authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set tough limits for food-borne hazards in meat and poultry. The more than 800 signatures she ended up gathering from teenagers were later presented by her mother, Pat Buck, to Congress, along with 6,000 adult signatures.
Buck also designed a Make a Difference Day project that generated 280 e-mails to various lawmakers about the proposed legislation, which is currently in committee in the U.S. House and Senate and has become known as Kevin’s Law.
“It was a horrible experience, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else going through it,” says Buck, who spent 10 days by Kevin’s bedside in a Wisconsin hospital, watching helplessly as his stomach inflated like a balloon and he cried in pain. “So I’m trying to make it so they don’t have to.”
In recognition of her efforts, Buck, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Dayton, has been named one of seven local 2004 Jefferson Award honorees, which is considered the Nobel Prize of volunteering. Her service will be honored at a reception and ceremony in Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland, on Jan. 27.
In addition to being awarded a medallion, Buck will have $1,000 donated in her name to the Kevin Kowalcyk Memorial Scholarship Fund by William J. Green and Associates. The awards are sponsored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Comcast and The Pittsburgh Foundation.
That Buck sprang so quickly, and single-mindedly, into action came as little surprise to those who know her. An honor student who volunteered many hours of service to various clubs and activities during high school, the teenager also created a theater program for aspiring thespians in grades 3-6 at the Grove City YMCA through which she directed three plays.
Most recently, she organized a theater workshop for kids at the high school just before Christmas.
“When Nancy gets passionate about something, nothing gets in her way,” says Grove City High School counselor Patty Wilson, who was one of two people to nominate her for the award.
And she takes her passion with her: Buck is in the process of starting a food safety program at her college’s Center for Social Concern and next month will travel to Washington, D.C., with her mother and a group of University of Dayton students to show them the lobbying process.
“You basically just tell your story over and over again, and hope someone will agree with you,” says Buck, who traveled to Washington three times with her mother while in high school to lobby senators and congressmen for passage of food safety legislation.
That said, it’s a story that never gets easier to tell.
While no one knows exactly how Kevin ingested the bacteria E. coli, his family believes the toddler most likely picked it up from a contaminated hamburger at a local summer festival in their native Wisconsin. Just a few weeks before, the entire family had vacationed together at Buck’s aunt’s house off the coast of Maine. Four weeks after returning home, however, Kevin fell ill with diarrhea and vomiting.
Most cases of E. coli resolve themselves within a few days, but Kevin’s tiny body was unable to fight off the infection. Twelve days after entering the hospital, Kevin died of gangrene to his small and large intestines. He was just four months shy of his third birthday.
“I’ll never forget what he looked like, or what his room smelled like,” recalls Buck. “And it was really hard hearing my sister cry so much. It broke my heart.”
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, almost half of the reported cases of E. coli and salmonella occur in children under 15 years of age, with the heaviest burden falling on the under-10 age group.
While Buck had learned about food-borne pathogens during a freshman studies class, like most teens she hadn’t really paid attention.
“I thought, ‘whatever,’ ” she recalls.
After Kevin died, however, she realized how sharing her experience could make a difference.
“I wanted them to realize that this really does happen, and things need to change,” says Buck.
“She has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met,” says her mother, Pat. “And her willingness to serve, even when she’s down, is really quite remarkable — that’s really what set the family in motion.”