Auburn WomenYoung Alumni Series

Jennifer Giddens ’16 & Kayla Funk, Fighting to Cure Pediatric Cancer

Jennifer Giddens '16, left, and Kayla Funk, left middle, at an OHOH event.

2,189 miles for 15,780 kids diagnosed with cancer each year. Jennifer Giddens ’16, extreme outdoorswoman and adventurer, began her 6-month trek of the Appalachian trail on March 27th, each step taken to support pediatric cancer. Her campaign called “Trekkin for Change” donates 100 percent of the funds to research.

In high school, Giddens went on her first backpacking trip and found “peace and serenity in the simple life.” After returning to the rush and crowdedness of day-to-day activities, she said, “I wanted to go back.” As a sophomore, she met Kayla Funk, who shared her other interest of photography at the time. The two became acquainted and although theirs lives went in different directions, they were both destined for Auburn.

Funk took a gap year to study with a Christian organization called Youth With A Mission, where she honed her talents in photography, videography, and journalism. After three months, she went on a mission trip to Kenya, but was forced to return early after experiencing nosebleeds and odd symptoms.

Back home she was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma, a form of cancer usually found in children under the age of five. Her case was rare and advanced.  Funk went straight into intense treatment, making her “very very sick,” she said. “My life revolved around cancer and treatment for about three years.”

Despite her health, Funk began her first semester at Auburn in fall 2014 as a pre-med student. Bound to cross paths again, Giddens said she had a job driving a golf cart on campus for the accessibility office, where she took people to class. “One day I was picking some people up and from a distance I saw Kayla. I ended up taking her from class to class a couple different times and we’d catchup then,” she said.

Last year Giddens decided that she was going to hike the Appalachian trail and she wanted to give her journey a purpose. Funk and her family founded Open Hands Overflowing Hearts (OHOH) when her cancer relapsed.

Kaya Funk photo

“It is a non-profit that raises money for childhood cancer research,” she said. Passionate people who “make use of their own networks, talents, and skills” makeup the organization, and that is how Trekkin for Change came to be.

“Pediatric cancer is the lowest funded cancer research that is out there. 4 percent of all the total research is pediatric cancer and 4 percent for the leading cause of death by disease in kids is not enough to make a difference,” Giddens said.

From a young age, these children must undergo brutal radiation treatment and spend countless hours in the hospital instead of being outside, simply enjoying being a kid. In order for a cure to be found, there must be more funding for research.

Having defied all odds of her diagnosis, Kayla is dedicated to fighting for the lives of others. “She has instilled in so many kids the fight she has brought to the table and shown them that they can do it too,” Giddens said. “Her parents say that she can’t go to the grocery store without being recognized because everyone knows her not necessarily for her disease, but for her determination of ‘this will not defeat me, at least not yet.’”

Jennifer Giddens '16 on a trek.
Kayla Funk and husband, Austin

“Be strong and very courageous,” written in Joshua 1:7-9, are words Funk lives by. It “doesn’t mean ‘don’t be scared.’ It means even when you’re scared, go ahead and take that next step, keep your head high, and trust,” she said. “My faith allows me to remain hopeful when all seems hopeless. When eternity is on your mind, it’s hard to get caught up stressing about the little stuff.”

Funk wrote on her blog, “I’ve been so happy, I’ve soaked in every second, I’ve thanked God for the sweet moments I’ve been given, and I’ve thought about how many sweet moments I have left on earth. I’m living like I’m dying, but I’m also living like I’ll never die.”

On May 21, 2016, she married her high school sweetheart Austin. They recently moved to Arizona and together they are really living and encouraging others to join in their fight and the fight of thousands of children. Funk is passionate about curing cancer and her husband wants to do the same. “Austin wants to change the word,” she said. “He is so smart, and he wants to use his mind to make a difference… and he will.” Together they are strong, and with more donors and supporters, they are stronger.

Giddens has joined them to make an impact in curing childhood cancer. She is able to change lives through her passion and along the way is inspiring people make a difference.

Follow Giddens along her journey at https://www.trekkinforchange.com.

Jennifer Giddens '16.