Boy warrior: Welch Elementary student gets help in cancer fight

Von Kleiv, 7, center, walks with his parents Gina and Dain Kleiv during the Laps for Lymphoma event at Welch Elementary School. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — In Von Kleiv’s mind, when he was snapping a couple of wooden boards in half with his hands by virtue of his newfound karate skills, the message went much deeper than what anybody else could probably see.

To the second-grader from Major George S. Welch Elementary School, he could have just as easily been beating down the cancer cells that infiltrated his body in May 2016, as opposed to crushing the boards.

Von Kleiv hugs his mom Gina after karate demonstration during Laps For Lymphoma event at Welch Elementary School.

After all, that has been the plan all along for the 7-year-old in his fight against pediatric cancer.

“I’m going to kick lymphoma’s butt,” Von Kleiv said.

Von Kleiv, proudly wearing a neon green t-shirt emblazoned with “Voninja – Boy Warrior. Kicking lymphoma’s butt since 2016,” showed just how far he has come last Thursday in his battle against T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma.

That was the day Welch Elementary School, located to the west of base housing across Del. 1 from Dover Air Force Base, hosted its second annual Laps for Lymphoma fundraiser to help fight pediatric cancer – with Von serving as the inspiration.

A year ago, Von Kleiv could hardly complete a lap around the track due to the effects of chemotherapy.

However, just 12 months later, he circled the track two times alongside his family on a hot, humid evening and then participated in a karate demonstration with his friends from Kaizen Karate Academy in Dover, where he broke his first boards in front of a supportive crowd that gathered at the school.

“He’s absolutely amazing to us,” said Lt. Col. Dain Kleiv, Von’s dad.

It was yet another step forward for the Kleivs, who have four other children: Sam, 19; Jack, 15; Riley, 13; and Lily, 11.

“The good thing is (T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma ) has a very high cure rate of about 95 percent, but in exchange it has a very brutal treatment regimen that lasts over two-and-a-half years,” said Gina Kleiv, Von’s mother.

“He’s been very, very sick at times. He missed over an entire year of school because he was too sick to attend. It’s a blood cancer, so he had tumors all over his body from his neck down to his pelvis.”

Not alone in their battle

Fortunately for the Kleivs, they have found out they are not alone in their fight.

Von Kleiv, center, prepares to break two boards with Kaizen Karate Academy during Laps For Lymphoma event at Welch Elementary School.

Jason Payne, principal of Welch Elementary, helped put together the first Laps for Lymphoma charity event last year in Von’s honor and raised more than $20,000 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which supports pediatric cancer research.

“It was something we just threw together because we wanted to show our support for him and try to raise some money,” Mr. Payne said. “We talked to his parents and their suggestion was to donate to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money for pediatric cancers, so that’s what we did.

“He has a lot of people rooting for him.”

on Kleiv, center, prepares to break two boards with Kaizen Karate Academy during Laps For Lymphoma event at Welch Elementary School.

This marks the first school year that Von has been able to remain in school while undergoing chemotherapy.

“Von came to us in kindergarten,” said Mr. Payne. “He graduated from kindergarten at A.I. du Pont and he spent a good chunk of his first-grade year not at school, but homebound, due to his treatments.

“He is a very active second-grader with us now and you wouldn’t know any difference between him and any other student.”

Mrs. Kleiv and her family appreciate the support.

Von Kleiv, center, breaks two boards with Kaizen Karate Academy during Laps For Lymphoma event at Welch Elementary School.

She noted that last Saturday marked the 500th day of Von’s chemotherapy treatments and that he still has one more year to go.

“The entire community and school has been amazing and supported us unbelievably,” she said.

It’s important, said Mr. Kleiv, because pediatric cancer research is underfunded when it comes to cancer.

“The school is sponsoring Laps for Lymphoma to raise money for cancer awareness and for the cancer research that goes on because it’s one of the most underfunded research things out there,” he said.

An unexpected battle

When Mr. and Mrs. Kleiv drove their youngest son up to A.I. du Pont Children’s Hospital in Wilmington for a clinic visit in May 2016, they had no idea what they were about to be confronted with.

“Within a few hours (Von) had an emergency CAT scan and was admitted to the Oncology Unit immediately and he didn’t come home for almost a month right off the bat,” Mrs. Kleiv said.

“It absolutely turned our world upside down because we weren’t expecting anything like cancer at all. This kid was young and active, had perfect attendance in school, and that doesn’t cross your mind.”

Von Kleiv 7, center, performs karate with other members from Kaizen Karate Academy during Laps For Lymphoma event at Welch Elementary School.

The Kleivs quickly discovered they had been thrown into a different world than they had ever encountered.

“My husband and I were talking and we’ve never known any kids who have cancer, we never grew up with anyone who had cancer, so we were in a realm that we had no exposure to, and it was absolutely scary,” Mrs. Kleiv said.

While they were obviously frightened they also had to appear strong for their son, who began to find his inner ninja upon hearing that he had lymphoma.

The fight was on.

Finding super strength from within

Von Kleiv assumed his alter-ego “Voninja” while talking with the nurses at A.I. DuPont during his chemotherapy treatments.

He told them how much he wanted to take karate classes and said that those were going to help him kick lymphoma’s butt.

“Sometimes I don’t feel good (after chemotherapy),” he said.” It makes me want to throw up sometimes.”

Von Kleiv performs a karate move on a member from Kaizen Karate Academy during Laps For Lymphoma event at Welch Elementary School.

But through all of the poking and the pain, Von has endured. And six months ago, he began taking those karate classes alongside his older sister Lily.

“He’s the superstar here with what he has had to endure,” said Mrs. Kleiv. “He is actually a part of the Beads for Courage program up at A.I. du Pont, so every time he gets poked or has surgery, he earns a bead.

“He’s earned over 1,084 beads, which it strings out to over 42 feet long.”

Sometimes doctors have to poke the chemotherapy treatments through his chest, sometimes his spine and other times intravenously through his hand.

That’s in addition to a number of different surgeries he has had to endure.

Kicking back

When Von Kleiv snapped those two wooden boards in half last Thursday, it marked yet the latest victory he has had in fighting lymphoma.

He said that actually being in classes at school with his friends this year “is a little more fun,” and that “my goal is to learn how to read.”

Mrs. Kleiv said starting karate classes seemed to put her youngest kid on the comeback trek.

“It took him an entire year to be strong enough to start karate lessons and he is obsessed with karate, but it’s also how he’s gotten over the side effects of his chemotherapy,” she said. He does karate five or six times a week.

“When he started karate six months ago he could barely even bunny hop, that was a struggle for him. But he has worked really, really hard and he has never given up. He’s a determined little guy.”

The Kleivs have one major goal as they continue to press on in their fight against childhood cancer.

“We hope that by the time we are grandparents that no child will have to ever suffer through the pain of enduring pediatric cancer,” Mrs. Kleiv said.

For more information and to help, visit https://www.stbaldricks.org/fundraisers/lapsforlymphoma2.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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