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Always part of school community

Jenny Williams, 13, left, a seventh-grader at Warren County Middle School, and Samantha Heater, 14, right, an eighth-grade student at Warren County High School, kneel by this memorial garden outside Warren County Middle School. The garden was planted in memory of Christina Kendall, a former student who died last year. Rich Cooley/Daily

Memorial garden planted for former Warren County student

By Kim Walter

Close to a year after her passing, Christina Kendall has been honored through the planting of a memorial garden at Warren County Middle School.

Christina, a 17-year-old student with Down syndrome, had been at the middle school for five years, and had come to lean on several teachers and students as if they were family.

Around Easter of 2010, Christina began experiencing seizures and increased respiratory distress, which led to an extended stay at the University of Virginia Hospital. Christina's mother, JoAnn Kendall, said her three closest teachers and even a few students at the school came to visit before Christina passed away on Dec. 18, 2011.

"I can't even begin to say how appreciative I am for what the school has done for me," she said. "It was very hard losing her ... she was my world. But they were there for me as much as they were for Christina."

Kendall said her daughter often referred to her teachers -- Pam Waters, Jeff Fuller and Mary Riley -- as her family, and even called Waters "mom."

"They treated her like she was their own," she said. "And I was told that Christina would always be a part of that school, and now I guess she is."

Family and friends gathered in early November to dedicate the garden, which has two pots of purple flowers -- Christina's favorite color. There is also a small gray-colored turtle that sits in the patch of mulch in the garden. The turtle symbolizes Christina through her nickname.

"Those of us at Warren County Middle School were blessed to know Christina Marie Kendall from 2006-2011," said Riley. "To all of us, she was lovingly known as Turtle."

Kendall said her daughter was very girly, but instead of clinging to a purse, she always had her book bag with her. Christina would protect, and even put her coat on over the backpack, which resulted in the nickname.

"During our time together, we watched as Turtle grew from a shy little girl who blossomed into an outgoing, loving classmate. We all remember her love of toy cell phones, nail polishes, her passion for collecting backpacks, and the toy surprises in a happy meal from McDonald's. Turtle loved to sing along and dance with Dora the Explorer and her all-time favorite video was Frosty the Snowman," said Riley, recounting memories of her student.

"Five years doesn't seem like a long time, but we chose not to measure her life in terms of years. Rather, we measured Turtle's life in love given, laughs shared, and many moments of endearing mischievousness. By those standards, Turtle lived a hundred years," she said.

At one point, Kendall was told that her daughter was too old to continue attending the middle school, but Fuller "put a lot into making sure she could stay."

Kendall said all three of her closest teachers were pallbearers for Christina.

The garden itself was an idea formed by members of the school's Student Government Association when they contemplated how to make a "meaningful tribute" to Christina, according to Fuller, who with Riley teaches in a self-contained classroom for intellectually disabled students.

"The students in my classroom adored her, watched over her, and were especially helpful," he said.

Christina's mother agreed, and was surprised at how good the other students were with her daughter.

"Most middle school-aged kids aren't that sensitive, but it was different with her," she said. "They seemed to really like her ... it was just unusual to me, for kids that age to really care."

Over all, Kendall is continuously grateful for the support she received through Christina's illness.

"I mean, she loved school, she was very smart, so it was never a question of the teachers not doing enough to help her there," she said. "But even when I had to pull Christina out of school, they visited and they even brought me meals when I had to be with her in the hospital."

"Kids like her are ... they're often forgotten or pushed to the side," Kendall said. "But at this school, she wasn't, not one bit."

Kendall added that Christina was the type of person who, upon meeting, made an instant connection, no matter what. The connections she made at Warren County Middle School will now live on.

"Turtle touched the lives of thousands in our community ... May all of our lives be that rewarding," Riley said at the dedication. "There are angels among us sent from up above. Christina Marie Kendall is one of them."

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com


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