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Hart's Kailie Kennedy: Listening to those in need

Posted: June 8, 2013 9:12 p.m.
Updated: June 8, 2013 9:12 p.m.

Hart High senior-to-be Kailie Kennedy has always had a desire to help others. The Indians basketball player travels each summer to Arizona with her church's youth group to improve people's lives.

 

The summer heat on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona is intense.

Plumbing is almost non-existent.

Children toss bags of Cheetos away and let the dry wind carry them across the land like they’re tumbleweeds.

This isn’t like home.

It’s hard to believe this is America.

“It opens your eyes to how other people in the world live,” Kailie Kennedy says. “How not everything is perfect, even within our boundaries.”

But for the last three summers, the 17-year-old Hart High senior-to-be has come here with her church’s youth group to improve people’s lives.

She arrives here today for a fourth summer in a row.

If it’s anything like years past, she will be building a home for a less fortunate Native American family in what is considered one of the poorest communities in the United States.

And she’ll be doing it out of a strong desire she has to help.

“She has a heart of gold. Very giving. Never asks for anything or complains or wants in return, which is rare these days,” says Hart girls basketball coach Terra Palmer.

This will be Kennedy’s third year on the Hart girls basketball team.

And if it’s anything like the first two, she’ll play sparingly.

And it won’t matter to her because she’ll still be helping her team.

Kennedy is a unique girl.

She was born three weeks premature and immediately developed health problems.

To treat early infections, Kennedy’s family was left with a difficult decision for treatment and decided on doctors’ suggestions to give her the antibiotic gentamicin. The danger of the medicine is that its side effects include its toxicity to the ears.

As an infant Kennedy developed hearing loss and at 4 months old she began wearing hearing aids.

The hearing loss has never stopped her.

Kennedy never developed speech problems and the hearing aids have helped her through life.

“Even with her hearing loss, she’s always been very independent,” says Kennedy’s mother, Lisa. “I think part of it is just she had to learn to be her own advocate. She relies on lip-reading a lot, even more than she realizes. She had to ask people to look at her to read lips.”

Yes, she was teased because of her hearing aids. But she moved on quickly from that, her mother says.

She turned the other cheek and made friends quickly because she was a leader with a gentle soul.

“She’s a motivator,” says her friend Alicia Spadaro. “She’s really kind and caring. She cares about you. I think she wants you to be happy. If I’m having a bad day, she notices that. She gets me to be happy, so we can be happy together. At school, we had the first two classes together. We would walk to class every morning. If I was off, not smiling, she’d ask me what’s wrong or tell a funny story.”

Spadaro is not only Kennedy’s classmate at Hart, she is in her youth group and has been with her friend to the San Carlos Reservation.

“She’s definitely like a leader,” Spadaro says. “She definitely tries to get people pumped up.”

That says a lot.

Especially under the Arizona sun, where the kids take “bucket” showers, occasionally make it to a supermarket to wash up, and sleep in campground like conditions.

Their priority is to help build a life for people out of stucco and chicken wire — the most basic of materials.

“I love helping the families and helping them start to get a better life,” Kennedy says. “This kid talked about going to school and learning English. It made me so proud. She’s talking about going to school, and there are times I don’t want to go to school. Then I think about these people who want to go to school but can’t.”

Kennedy’s mother says she believes her daughter’s desire to help comes from what she saw at an early age.

Lisa had people close to her, like her sister, die early from disease.

Kennedy watched those people battle.

But she was also outgoing at an early age.

Kennedy has been a Girl Scout since she was in kindergarten, has gone to church and joined the church’s youth group not at the urging of others, but because she wanted to do it.

She took a flight alone as a child to see a family member.

When she reached sixth grade, Kennedy asked her mom (who was a sixth-grade teacher) to teach another grade so she could have independence in her last year of elementary school.

In the past, she has worn purple and pink hearing aids — not embarrassed in the least bit.

Kennedy played travel basketball as a youth and into her teenage years.

She was the tallest girl in her sixth-grade class.

Once she reached high school, her experience helped land her a spot on a rebuilding Hart Indians team.

Palmer took over the program in 2011 and after her first team meeting, Kennedy approached her.

There’s a device Kennedy has used for past coaches that works as a wireless microphone to her hearing aid. She asked Palmer if she would use it.

Palmer recalls what became a humorous exchange.

“I said to her, ‘Before you give me a special microphone, let’s see if you have trouble hearing me because the one thing nobody’s ever said is they can’t hear me,’” Palmer remembers. “The first week of practice she says, ‘I think it’s good. We don’t need the microphone.”

The only times Kennedy can’t hear her coach is when her back is turned on a play.

But there have been many moments when Kennedy hasn’t been on the floor, instead making the most of being a supporter.

“We had a conversation after the season ended. I know how kids are. K.K. didn’t play much, but she worked as hard as everybody else, but maybe wasn’t as talented,” Palmer says. “I told her, ‘K.K., I know it’s difficult to be the kid who works her butt off, but doesn’t always get to play.’ She says, ‘Coach, it’s not really that difficult. This is my family. I’ll do whatever I need to do. It’s my job.’”

She might not play as much as some of her other teammates, but because she is so physical, she has a distinct role on the team.

She’s the muscle.

In a game this past season, freshman point guard Julia White, who has probably never seen triple digits on a scale, took an elbow to her face.

Palmer looked down the bench for someone to let the other team know that Hart wouldn’t be bullied.

“She looks up to me and puts her hand up. She says, ‘I can handle that,’” Palmer recalls.

Kennedy will take a 3.6 GPA, two varsity basketball seasons, and years of being there for others into her senior year at Hart.

For those reasons alone, she probably deserves playing time.

Her mother even says she told Kennedy she deserves more time on the floor.

Kennedy stops her mom.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kennedy says about playing time. “I remember coach Palmer saying, ‘It’s not about who’s in the newspaper. It’s about being happy for your teammates and being there for your teammates.”

Ironic, right?

On this occasion, it is about who is in the newspaper.

 

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