John Clay: It's not who Reese Kemp knows, it's how he helps

jclay@herald-leader.com,JohnClayFebruary 24, 2013 

It wasn't that John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe visited Kentucky Children's Hospital in 2009, the day after Reese Kemp underwent surgery. It was that the day after the visit, Reese's phone rang.

"Hey, Reese, this is John," said the caller.

John?

"John Wall. I just wanted to check up on you."

It wasn't that Terrence Jones visited Reese Kemp, or called him on the phone, or had him over to Wildcat Lodge. It was that the two went to the movies together and just hung out.

It wasn't that during the campout for Big Blue Madness tickets last fall, Nerlens Noel searched out the little kid he had heard so much about. "Are you Little Reese?" Noel asked.

It was that before the start of the basketball season the two were riding Go Karts together in Gatlinburg.

This story isn't about what Kentucky basketball players have done for Reese Kemp, a 16-year-old freshman at West Jessamine High School in Nicholasville who has cystic fibrosis and diabetes.

It's about what Reese, through his Reese's Resources foundation and his Reese's Bucket List, wants to do for others.

Just in the past year, Reese has helped feed families at Thanksgiving, helped kids receive toys at Christmas, and given Valentines to the needy.

And he has more in store.

Monday afternoon, Reese is to meet with the Nicholasville City Commission to talk about his upcoming charitable projects.

"I'm living a pretty good life," he said the other day. "So I want to be able to help people and do what people did for me and helped me."

At first glance, you might not think that Reese Kemp lives a pretty good life. At age 2, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and the digestive tract.

Then at age 5, Reese's father died of a heart attack while the family was living in Nebraska, before they moved to Kentucky.

"When I first moved down here, we didn't have very much money," he said. "My dad had just passed away. We were really down. And everyone just helped us out."

So if you thought Reese Kemp didn't have a pretty good life, then you wouldn't know Reese. What he lacks in height (4-foot-7), he makes up for in spunk. What he lacks in weight (85 pounds), he makes up for in heart. What he gets in his daily struggles, he gives back with personality-plus.

"He is one of those people you are instantly drawn to," said Steve Newell, a Lexington Alcoholic Beverage Control officer who met Reese a couple of years ago and has been a friend and supporter since. "To see the way he lights up a room and the way he is touched by others definitely makes him a special kid. Reese has gone through more things than any 16-year-old should have to go through. In dealing with his disease, the regular hospitalizations, and to have gone through the loss of his father, is simply more than any kid should have to endure. Reese has a heart as big as this room."

'An inspiration for so many'

It was in a hospital room that Reese's life changed more than three years ago. It wasn't the visit. It was the call after the visit.

"I didn't know what to say," said Reese. "At first, I was, it was crazy that John Wall was on the phone with me."

During Wall's rookie season with the Washington Wizards, he had Reese out twice to visit. Last month, Wall had him back to Washington again, this time for Reese's birthday.

"The best time was this time," said Reese, who got to see the Wizards play DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings. "Because we played 2K (an NBA video game) at his house the next day. We hung out a lot."

"To see Reese experience something that he normally enjoys doing for others was one of the greatest joys for me personally," said Newell, who accompanied Reese on the trip. "This kid is such an inspiration for so many people."

Through Wall's friendship, other UK players got to know Reese. He became especially tight with Terrence Jones. And now Nerlens Noel.

When Noel befriended Lane Goodwin, the 13-year-old boy from Kentucky who was battling a rare form of cancer, Reese helped the UK center bring attention to the cause before Goodwin's death in October. Reese and Lane even met on a FaceTime chat in which Reese showed Lane that he, too, had a feeding tube.

Not long before Christmas, when Reese was in the hospital for one of his regular visits — "tuneups," he calls them — Noel came to visit, saying he wanted to check on his buddy before he went back to Boston for the holidays.

The night that Noel tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Gainesville, Fla., Reese was with his family watching the game at Applebee's.

"At first, I thought it was just like he's always going down," said Reese. "I thought it was just a regular fall-down-get-right-back-up until he started screaming. Then he didn't get back up. I didn't watch any of the game after that."

He texted back and forth with Brian Long, Noel's teammate and Reese's friend, too, trying to find out about the injury because Noel was at the hospital and couldn't use his phone. Finally, Reese got to talk to Noel.

"I just told him he's got to be strong and get through it," said Reese. "He told me it wasn't a big deal."

Media stardom a boost to giving

Reese said he hopes to help Noel get healthy again — because Reese knows a thing or two about that — and maybe, "help him with his free-throw shooting a little bit."

You can hear Noel chuckling about that.

That might be the reason the players get along so well with Reese. He treats them like regular guys. Sure, they talk basketball. (Reese played on his middle school and freshman teams at West Jessamine.) But mainly they talk video games and movies and kid stuff.

"I don't look at them as superstars or anything like that," he said. "I just look at them as Terrence Jones, who plays for the Rockets. Or Nerlens Noel, freshman at UK. I don't really see them as anything more than that."

"I think one reason he's friends with the players is because he doesn't make a big deal about it," said his mother, Shantelle Kemp. "With John Wall, that relationship went on for two years before anybody knew about it. It wasn't a publicity stunt."

Now, Reese is a media star. He's been on television. He's been on the radio. He phoned a call-in show before the UK Alumni-Villains game and mentioned his friendship with Wall. At first, host Ryan Lemond didn't believe him. Since Lemond found out it was true, he's had Reese on the radio several more times.

Why, John Calipari even talked about Reese with Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio. Cowherd had been critical of Wall — "downing John," as Reese put it — and Calipari mentioned Wall's friendship with Reese.

"I was at school so I didn't get to hear it, but people told me about it," said Reese. "The coaches asked me about it. They said, 'Coach Cal was talking about you today.' I was pretty shocked about that."

The publicity is nice, but mainly for one reason.

"I like it because it's fun, but I like reaching out to help others," Reese said. "It's something I've wanted to do for a while, and with me being on the media stuff, it helps get it out there."

There is Reese's Resources, which Reese runs through his foundation. And there is Reese's Bucket List, a Facebook page with more than 3,130 likes where Reese talks about his various projects, fundraisers and the things he wants to do for others.

At Thanksgiving, Reese's Resources helped feed families in need. At Christmas, it helped get toys to kids in children's hospitals. For Valentine's Day, Reese raised money to buy 120 boxes of valentines for schools for kids who might have forgotten their valentines or could not afford to buy them.

Newell has helped Reese organize "clean parties" at schools to raise money.

"Reese's Bucket List is his testimony of wanting to help others in any way he can," said Newell. "Reese knows firsthand what makes kids happy, and he vows to do what he can to play a small part in putting a smile on a child's face."

Oh yeah, smiles.

"We're going to do another one this year, 'Change Your Smile,'" said Reese. "We're going to give someone, if they want a new smile, like how Terrence did with (UK fan) Stone Cold Willow. We'll get someone a new set of teeth. We've got everything set, we just haven't promoted it yet."

Mark this down: On June 10, Reese's foundation is to have a celebrity golf scramble at Andover.

"May is Cystic Fibrosis Month," said Reese. "My foundation, we're going to have a new logo. So look for that."

"He's always been kind-hearted," said Shantelle Kemp. "I think what really got him was helping with Lane Goodwin, and then he died. That's kind of kicked him into a higher mode.

"He's always been generous, and I think he just always wanted to do something and now he's found his niche. This is what makes him happy and completes him."

So it's not just that Reese Kemp is friends with Kentucky basketball players, although those aren't bad friends to have.

"It helps a lot," he said with a grin, "knowing they have my back."

It's that Reese Kemp wants to give back.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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