Audubon girls honor former teammate Kari Jenkinson's courage against brain cancer

The Audubon girls’ basketball team wear purple T-shirts at practice in memory of their teammate Kari Jenkinson, a three-sport athlete who died on Jan. 4 after a two-year battle with brain cancer.

On the inside of their forearms, written in big purple letters, are the words believe and strength  and unstoppable.

They write them before every game, strategically placed so it would be impossible not to see them before a big shot or as they look down, seated during a timeout.

The words are reminders of those practical lessons — reflections of the perspective the Audubon girls’ basketball team gained and the wisdom imparted to them by their teammate Kari Jenkinson, who died  Jan. 4 after a two-year battle with brain cancer.

Beyond inspiration, those words are part of a shared responsibility, the effort to make sure that no one forgets, to make sure the fight continues and Jenkinson’s legacy lives on.

The players supported Jenkinson —  a friend for  most of their lives — through every step of her fight.

And in the wake of her Jan. 4 death, they continue that support and keep fighting as if she were still with them.

“During the two years that she was sick, from the moment she found out, Kari was the most positive person through the whole thing. She always had a smile on her face, she would come to our games whenever she could, and lit up a room as soon as she walked in. She was always excited, and always tried to make everyone around her feel important,” said senior Jacqueline Panico. “She taught us to stay positive. To take every situation head on. And we want to make sure we remember what she stood for.”

Camera icon FILE
Kari Jenkinson died Jan. 4 after a two-year battle with brain cancer.

Purple was Jenkinson’s favorite color, and it’s the rallying color for her cause.

The players wear purple socks and hair ties  and purple warm-up shirts for every game. The back of the shirts read “#Play4KariJ.” On the front is: “Swing For the Cure.”

This year’s senior night — which would have been Jenkinson’s senior night — will be dedicated to Jenkinson, who also played soccer and softball for the Green Wave.

Tributes from around South Jersey have also poured in, particularly from Audubon’s Colonial Conference rivals. A recent game against Sterling stood out as the Silver Knights paid tribute to Jenkinson before the game and made a $200 donation to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s oncology department in her honor.

These moments, Audubon coach Cheryl Clark said, help crystalize Jenkinson’s legacy, “even for those who didn’t know her. These tributes  show what she meant to us and what we’re going to continue to play for.”

Jenkinson taught her teammates about coping with personal struggle. But the players say they were also moved by the response of their neighbors. They learned the power of community, the beauty of their tight-knit town.

On the night of Jan. 9, all of Audubon High School was lit up in purple light. Purple ribbons still adorn utility poles and fences for blocks surrounding the school.

“People who may not have even known her wear purple for her,” said senior Rachel Ray, “Everyone is just coming together for her. It’s just amazing to see that a community can do that.

“It’s beautiful to see the way Kari was able to impact so many lives.”

All of it, the players said, is now inspiration.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff photographer
The Audubon girls practice in purple T-shirts  in memory of Kari Jenkinson.

On the day after Jenkinson died, Clark gave her team the option to postpone its Jan. 5 game, knowing that some of the players would not be in the right place mentally to play basketball.

“They unanimously decided that they wanted to play and the consensus was that Kari would have wanted us to play,” Clark said. “I think that took a lot of strength and courage on their part and I am very proud of them.”

The loss still hurts, and  the players are still healing.

But they are determined to continue the fight. That’s what Jenkinson imparted to them.

Each time they look at their forearms during a game, they are reminded of those lessons and of the role they play in keeping those lessons and those memories going — why it’s up to them to help carry the torch.

“You have to fight to the very end like Kari did,” said senior Gabby Bobo. “She was literally fighting until the exact very end. That’s one of the things I take from her. If you’re put in a negative situation, you have to stay positive. You have to always fight to come out stronger.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
A purple ribbon outside the Audubon High School gymnasium.