For Elizabeth Brechtel and her 5-year-old daughter Naomi, the start of Naomi’s kindergarten year brought excitement, anticipation—and a little anxiety. That’s because Naomi has spina bifida, a complex condition that causes partial paralysis, hydrocephalus and other complications.
As Naomi prepared to enter Somerset Heights Elementary, Elizabeth knew her daughter’s engaging personality would aid her transition. But some questions still remained. How would classmates react to Naomi’s differences? How would Naomi handle their questions? Would she fit in?
Similar questions had entered Melissa Zeleny’s mind four years earlier when her daughter Hayden, 8, started school. In the fall of her kindergarten year, Hayden, who has cerebral palsy, came to Gillette for a series of multi-level orthopedic surgeries. After a two week hospital stay, Hayden returned to school — first using a wheelchair, then a walker. She repeated the process a year later.
“As an inpatient at Gillette, Hayden was used to seeing many children in wheelchairs, walkers and braces, and using assistive technology,” recalls Melissa. “But at Somerset, she noticed she was the only child who used these things.”
Hayden, today a third-grader, first met Naomi several years ago—she’s in the same grade as Naomi’s older brother, Xavier. As the girls’ mothers connected and began comparing experiences and stories, they soon learned both girls came to Gillette for treatment.
This year, Hayden had an opportunity to participate in Somerset Heights Elementary’s Big Buddy program, which arranges for an older child to serve as role model to a younger peer. And she knew exactly the student to mentor! She asked Principal Mary Bowman to arrange for her to be Naomi’s Big Buddy, and Bowman happily agreed.
“From taking a little longer to get around school, to falling down more easily, and most importantly, wearing braces, Hayden is thrilled to have a buddy who is ‘just like her,’” says Melissa. An added bonus? The girls have become fast friends.