Bond beyond years: Evansville girls form special friendship

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Gina Duwe
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

EVANSVILLE—Katie Fahey stood outside the middle school science classroom for several days before she felt comfortable enough to take a seat.

At her table, Kendall Hazen was waiting to befriend her.

A special bond soon formed between the two Evansville girls: Kendall, a bubbly, caring sixth-grader, and Katie, a quiet, smiley student preparing to go to high school next year.

Katie has lissencephaly, a rare brain malformation with many of the same sensory, social and other characteristics as autism, said her mother, Rhonda. Her developmental skills are at a 3-year-old's level, her mother said, but ever since kindergarten, her peers have been very good to her.

“Kids like Kendall make parents like my husband, Jim, and I feel great as parents, knowing that there are kids out there who want to befriend Katie and help her succeed and fit in with her peers as much as possible,” Rhonda said.

Kendall lights up talking about Katie, who she said brings out her smiling, laughing personality just as much as Kendall does for Katie.

Kendall described their bond in an essay “My Friend Katie and I,” which recently won first place in the Ninth Annual Autism Awareness Essay Contest for grades six through eight sponsored by the Autism Society of WisconsinShe fought her nerves and presented her essay to a conference room of attendees at a Wisconsin Dells resort.

Kendall is the daughter of Jim and Mya Rognstand of Evansville.

Katie turned over lettered plastic chips in a bucket earlier this week while her education specialist Mary Beth Anderson described how the kids in science class helped teach Katie—and themselves—using puzzles and flashcards.

“It was really helping both of them,” said Anderson, who is with Katie all day. “They interact with her, and they're studying in different ways.”

Katie and Kendall no longer have science class together at McKenna Middle School because Katie goes to the high school for part of the day, but the two met up earlier this week.

A big smile spread across Kendall's face as she greeted Katie.

“We've got to go to lunch, I'm hungry. My tummy's growling,” she told Katie, motioning around her belly. Looking up, a smile spread across Katie's face. Soon they were off to the hallways, where the pair has enjoyed cruising down the ramps.

“We gotta go fast down the ramp!” Kendall told her excitedly, bouncing down the ramp in flip flops.

Katie doesn't talk much, but sometimes she'll start talking to Kendall and won't stop, Kendall said. Katie has quite the sense of humor and loves to people watch, Anderson said.

When asked if she thinks she's a role model, Kendall said her friends tell her what she does with Katie is cool.

“'Well, you can do it, too. It's not like I'm special or anything,'” she said she tells them.

Katie has been a role model for Kendall, too, because Katie doesn't care what other people think of her, Kendall said. Kids in middle school can get caught up in what other people think of them, Kendall said, and when she gets into that, she always thinks of Katie and is reminded not to worry.

“It helps a lot,” she said. “Whenever I'm sad, I think of her because she makes me smile.”

Katie has joined Kendall in gym class, where it was hard for Anderson to get Katie to exercise. But when the music started, Katie would do whatever Kendall did, including running, she said.

Katie would stand at the drinking fountain after running and give high-fives to her classmates as Kendall said each person's name.

“She likes running with all of us, and she gets a really big smile on her face,” Kendall said.

The first time Katie came to gym class, Kendall said she could tell some of the other students were nervous, but now they're trying to get Katie to run with them.

“It's really fun to watch,” she said.

Katie can't tell her parents what the friendship means to her, her mother said, but she shows it in her expressions or by using her iPad. When her parents mention Kendall or show a picture of her, Katie just brightens, Rhonda said.

“She seems comfortable and happy when we talk about her,” she said.

The thought of Katie heading to the high school full-time next year brings a frown to Kendall's face, but she says their parents plan to arrange for the two of them to get together.

“I hope I'm her friend forever,” she wrote in her essay.

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