Pen Pal Motivates Sen. Kirk To Recover From Stroke

CHAMPAIGN - This isn't necessarily what Jackson Cunningham wants to do on a Friday afternoon, but he knows it's what he has to do.

CHAMPAIGN - This isn't necessarily what Jackson Cunningham wants to do on a Friday afternoon, but he knows it's what he has to do.

The 11-year old had a stroke three years ago. Doctors have no idea why he had a blood clot. He lost all control on one side of his body. His speech was a slur, but Jackson is making a comeback.

He said, "I actually hope to move my fingers."

It's life-changing therapy, but one of Jackson's speech exercises actually changed someone else's life. He wrote a letter to his U.S. Senator who also had a stroke. Jackson knew exactly how he felt.

He wrote, "My name is Jackson Cunningham. I live in Oakwood, Illinois, and I am nine years old. Last year, in February 2011, I was eight years old and had a stroke. I was healthy kid. The stroke was on the right side of my brain. I couldn't move a muscle on my left side. Here's some advice. Do not give up on yourself. All the hard work is worth it. Sincerely, Jackson Cunningham."

Senator Mark Kirk said the letter stood out because of it's quality and the shock of a child having a stroke. He wrote back.

"Dear Jackson, We appear to have a lot in common. I was born in Champaign, Illinois, about 45 years before you. We have both survived a stroke. Keep up your spirits. Your pen pal, Senator Mark Kirk, U.S. Senate."

They kept exchanging letters, swapping tips on how to keep Central Illinois zombie-free, as both battled to regain control over their bodies.

"After my stroke, I was unable to even sit up in bed," remembered Kirk. "I would just keel over really unable to walk. Then one day, I was able to walk."

Kirk's inspiration was a kid who never says quit.

"When I first saw him, he was not able to run. Now that he's able to run, I want to run."

The pen pals became friends. They saw each other last summer on the Senator's turf, touring the Senate floor and the basement.

Jackson said, "I think it's pretty awesome to be friends with a Senator."

Three months later, they were on Jackson's turf. Kirk came to watch Jackson do some therapy in between meetings.

The Senator said, "He's an example to me that he's hanging in there."

An example of strength, commitment and heart. It helped get a U.S. Senator back to where he belonged, one step and one letter at a time.

"Never give up on yourself, even if you're knocked down at a very young age," said Kirk. "You can be as good as Jackson."

Kirk's next goal is to run from the Hart Senate building to the Capitol. He wants Jackson to be there when it happens, running beside him.

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