LAKELAND | Kenna E. is an artist and a writer with an abundance of creativity. She is enthralled by butterflies, perhaps because they reflect her own metamorphosis. And the obstacles Kenna E. has overcome have shaped her into an exceptional graduate at Santa Fe Catholic High School.
As a toddler, Kenna’s parents noticed something different. She could speak to them, but not often to others. At one point, she stopped speaking completely. Kenna was diagnosed with selective mutism – “a condition where you are mute, but only because you are so anxious,” explained her father, Andrew.
In first grade, she was tested, and it was determined she also struggled with dyslexia. That’s when her parents moved her to The Roberts Academy, which specializes in teaching dyslexic students.
“By junior high, she still wouldn’t speak a lot. She would talk to us, but not to strangers,” Andrew said. “There were a lot of speaking and communication issues with her along way.”
Adding to her anxiety, her mother became ill with leukemia and died when Kenna was in sixth grade. She was 12 and her sister, Astrid, was 15. Since she was a child, art has served as Kenna’s outlet. Her father recalled how she created characters and fictional stories early on.
“I love art because I get to do whatever I want. You can use any medium,” Kenna said. “You can create anything. It can have meaning, or it doesn’t have to have meaning.” She recalled one time when she was angry, she cut up pieces of felt and glued them into her sketch book.
“It didn’t look good, but it helped. It was a form of expressionism,” Kenna said.
Staff at Roberts Academy recommended Santa Fe Catholic as a good high school transition for Kenna. Andrew said he liked the Christian element and that the school could continue to help Kenna.
“I think freshman year was an adjustment,” said Matt Franzino, president of Santa Fe. He noted her lower reading and writing skills. “She was very quiet, and it was also the year we shut down (for COVID). When she came back, she really developed great skills. She’s come a long way.”
Pamela Garzarelli, school counselor, remembered a very shy, very quiet Kenna arriving freshman year. Bigger classes, more kids and switching schedules seemed daunting. Over time, she acquired the tools to overcome her obstacles to socialization and deal with her anxiety and no longer experienced selective mutism.
The turning point came junior year when she made friends with similar interests. Kenna even went to homecoming and prom, despite her social anxiety.
“It made it better and helped me get out of my bubble,” Kenna said.
She battled stressful moments by stepping outside occasionally for some fresh air.
“I see her now with a group of friends and it’s really beautiful,” Garzarelli said. “She’s become a part of the community and it’s fabulous.”
When it was time to complete community service hours, the school was still remote teaching. Many students argued they could not complete the hours because they couldn’t be around people, but Kenna turned to art.
“The neat part is she researched and led the way for our school because she found a way to do her community service at home during COVID,” said Franzino.
Kenna did a search for “service opportunities with art” and it came up with letter writing. An avid writer who keeps her own journal, she thought it would be fun to do. “I do some different writing. When I was younger, I wrote stories with characters. I always kept a journal and would vent in my writing, so I could write all sorts of stuff.”
She looked at the suggestions and there were organizations ministering to the elderly, the depressed, hospital patients, and even one called Girls Love Mail — for women recently diagnosed with cancer.
Kenna has no idea how many cards she wrote. But she designed the cards with love and intent, decorated on the front and back with special messages inside. Her favorite cards were those sent to people with depression.
“I was able to do personalized letters and cards (for all of them),” Kenna said.
“Every letter was a creation of art. She would spend a lot of time making them special,” Andrew said. “I think letters to make those who are suffering feel better pleases God. I think she was absolutely motivated to help those who are hurting.”
Franzino marvels at Kenna’s tenacity, dedication, and compassion. “This is a kid that had trouble with writing, reading and communication skills when she arrived. And to see how far she’s come…” his voice trailed off. He said he feels Santa Fe Catholic has been a perfect fit for Kenna. “The care and compassion from her teachers, daily prayer, weekly services, and retreats continue to play a part in the development of Kenna’s strong faith and trust in God. She has been through so much in her life already and has faced the many challenges with grace and adversity.”
To say her father, Andrew, is proud of Kenna is an understatement.
“Where do I begin? I could say so many things,” he started. “I’m really proud of how hard she works, of her sense of right and wrong and how she’ll stand up for herself, despite being shy and quiet. She won’t let people push her around.”
Before celebrating her graduation, Kenna took first place in the Polk County Catholic Schools Art Competition with a self portrait collage. It is a perfect representation of her individuality, obstacles she has overcome and those still looming, but especially of her beautiful mind. Created with cutouts from magazines, newspapers, candy boxes, markers and more, she depicts herself with her blonde hair and glasses and the newspapers in her eyes reveal what is going on within her broad, observant view. On the periphery is the word “MIND,” surrounded by bright and dark colors, and fragments of text, offering tremendous insight to her vastly creative abilities.
Kenna hopes to study studio art and applied to Stetson University in DeLand, Florida Southern College in Lakeland and New College of Florida in Sarasota. She was accepted to all, but is still trying to choose.
When asked what motivates her to surmount the obstacles she’s faced, she said, “I just keep going. I have a lot of things that give me the opportunity to reflect on my emotions and let it all out, so if I’m stressed or under pressure, I can do that.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, May 19, 2023