For 17-year-old McKenna Nerone, being Catholic means serving others.
“It is just what we do; it’s who we are,” said McKenna, a Christ King parishioner who has been volunteering her whole life.
So when she was assigned to do a service project for her honors philosophy class at Wauwatosa East High School, she didn’t think it would be a big deal. Her biggest dilemma was deciding which project to do.
Her mom, Kimberly Nerone, suggested she help out with Milwaukee’s Denim Day, part of an international campaign of wearing jeans to create awareness and support for rape survivors. At first, McKenna was not interested.
About a week later, though, McKenna read about the campaign’s origin in 1999. It sparked after a 45-year-old driving instructor was convicted in Italy of raping his 18-year old female student. The Italian Supreme Court overturned the decision, deeming the girl’s jeans were too tight to be removed without her assistance, and therefore the incident could not have been rape, but consensual sex.
“Wait,” McKenna thought to herself. “I’m almost 18 and I’m learning how to drive.”
The more she thought about that, the more she wanted to do something. She read that girls in the U.S. have a one in five chance of being raped sometime in their lives. And most likely, the rapist will be someone the girl knows.
“The numbers are crazy,” McKenna said. “It is something we need to talk about. It means that every two minutes in America, someone is raped. That’s huge.”
Her mind raced.
“When I’m in school, safe, there are 1,050 people who are raped each week,” McKenna said.
| McKenna Nerone
So she decided to collect 1,050 pairs of jeans and hang them on the fence around the Tosa East soccer field in honor of each rape survivor.
Initially, the response was slow. McKenna worried when collection bins sat empty the first couple of weeks.
But that soon changed as more donations came in than McKenna expected. She collected about 1,800 pairs of jeans, which are being donated to Pathfinders, a nonprofit organization that helps runaway teens and at-risk youth, and to survivors of sexual assault at Aurora Sinai Medical Center.
“It’s been crazy,” said McKenna as she sat at home folding jeans. “At first I was really concerned that I wouldn’t get enough jeans. Now my house is going to explode.”
“It was such a great project,” said Barb Abler, youth director at Christ King. “She did a great job. She stuck to it, followed through and didn’t lose heart. She just made it happen, so kudos to her. It’s nice when you’re young and you don’t give up hope. Faith will help you.”
Each pair of jeans brings awareness of each survivor. But some do more than that … they give each survivor a voice.
Many of the jeans had notes tucked away in their pockets. The notes told individual stories of how the jeans’ owners had survived rape … the story they had felt unable to tell until now.
In post after post on the campaign’s Facebook page, rape survivors echo the same sentiment. Women are relieved to be able to tell their story, something that has been taboo.
McKenna found that she was reaching people everywhere she went. One Wauwatosa storeowner said no when McKenna approached her about displaying a poster about the campaign.
“Let me tell you about my project anyway,” McKenna told the lady.
As the woman listened, she began to cry.
“I’m one of them,” the lady said through her tears. “I’m a rape survivor.”
The incident proved to her how rampant rape is and how many people it affects.
“You don’t know who you’re talking to, or what they are going through,” McKenna said. “We need to learn how to do that … to listen and respond.”
People from all over responded to McKenna. She heard from people across the country and was covered by local and national media. Jeans were collected in Wauwatosa, Brookfield, Waukesha, Greendale, Sturtevant and Milwaukee.
People sent jeans from Missouri and New York.
McKenna was with Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley as she proclaimed April 24 as Denim Day in Wauwatosa. She held press conferences with Mayor Tom Barrett in Milwaukee and Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen in Madison. And she received the WCASA (Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault) 2013 Voice of Courage Award for Community Advocacy.
“It was unbelievable,” McKenna said. “I never, never imagined it would get that big. I’m just a silly high school kid from little Wauwatosa.”
But that silly kid has been helping others for years. In eighth grade alone, she exceeded 1,000 hours of community service. Last summer she went on her parish youth mission trip to help rebuild homes in Kentucky. She has been a senior leader for confirmation classes this year at Christ King and sings in the parish’s youth choir.
“I could not be more proud of who she is and what she’s done, said McKenna’s mother, Kimberly. “It is so much of who McKenna is, what lovely proof of who she is.”
Kimberly said that McKenna has always enjoyed doing community service, no matter what it is.
“Community service is not necessarily boring,” Kimberly said. “For McKenna, even stuffing envelopes can be so much bigger and rewarding. We’ve always done it on a very regular basis and she has always thought it was a fun thing. It’s pretty amazing. That’s what it’s supposed to be; not a laborious task. It’s joyous to give, and she so gets that and embodies that in such a beautiful way.”
McKenna said that many people are now asking her if she plans to go into social work.
The answer is no; she wants to become an orthodontist. But she plans to continue serving the community.
“Just because I’m not in that field doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep doing things like that,” McKenna said. “I would do this again in a heartbeat. It’s incredible that one person can make such a change.”