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Karns City school rallies around family

Elizabeth Hackwelder

KARNS CITY — The inspiration of a smile. The power of sheer joy.

Elizabeth Hackwelder lived her life basking in accomplishments most people in the world take for granted.

“Walking, talking, eating ... none of us even think of those things,” her mother, Tara Hackwelder, said. “Elizabeth worked endlessly to get there. She had a glow about her each time she progressed in any area. She loved life.”

Elizabeth lost her life at age 8 on Aug. 6. She succumbed to a genetic severe multisystem developmental disorder known as ZTTK syndrome that she had since birth.

Tara was a teacher in the Karns City Area School District who resigned her post to become a stay-at-home mother for her son, Celtan, now a fifth-grader, and Elizabeth.“She needed a feeding tube when she was 2,” Tara said of her daughter. “I had to be there for her.”Elizabeth's father, Jason Hackwelder, teaches U.S. history at Karns City. He also is an assistant coach on the Gremlins' football team and won the Butler Eagle Scoring Trophy as a running back at Allegheny-Clarion Valley in 1996.He insists Elizabeth's impact will live in him and his family forever.“I run five miles a day,” Hackwelder said. “When I'm feeling sluggish on the treadmill, I think of her, all that she went through and the positive attitude she kept throughout.“And I keep on going.”

Elizabeth attended the West Penn School of the Blind. She underwent numerous surgeries and therapies and spent her life in and out of Children's Hospital.She had a bone marrow biopsy, wore braces on her legs so she could walk, had fluid drained from her brain ... the list goes on.“It's endless,” Hackwelder said. “Yet she had a smile for everybody she came across. She loved everyone.“We were told our daughter would never be able to walk. One Christmas season, before she turned 4, we witnessed a miracle. She walked for the first time. It was one of many miracle moments she gave us. The courage that girl had ... she was a superhero.”

That wasn't lost on Karns City athletics this fall.Members of the football and girls volleyball teams were among the many who visited the funeral home after Elizabeth's death. They didn't want their thoughts of her to end there.The Gremlins' volleyball team wore pink and purple ribbons in their hair all season with the words “Elizabeth Jeanne Princess Warrior” printed on them.

The football team wore a sticker on each helmet depicting a sunflower logo and Elizabeth's name. The sunflower represents Elizabeth's attitude toward life and is a symbol in the fight against ZTTK syndrome.Elizabeth was one of the first patients in the world diagnosed with the syndrome, her mother said.“I'm the president of the foundation to fight the syndrome,” Tara said. “I went to the girls volleyball Senior Night to support the team, and they presented me with a ribbon of my own.“I wasn't expecting that. I was so touched. Needless to say, I cried.”Many of the students on KC's football and volleyball teams have had Jason Hackwelder as a teacher.He coaches running backs and defensive linemen on the football team.

“Mason McNany is one of our linemen and had a good relationship with Jason,” Gremlins head football coach Joe Sherwin said. “Jason's had him as a student a couple of years.“He taught history to seventh and ninth graders, so he's had a lot of these kids twice. It was Mason's idea for us to do something as a team to show support for their family.”Assistant volleyball coach Nicole Fox said her daughter, Ashley, came up with the idea of the girls wearing ribbons in their hair during matches.“Our booster club got the ribbons made for the girls,” Coach Fox said. “This is a small community, and everybody knows everybody. Our kids play with their kids, that type of thing.“Everybody loved Elizabeth. She was a sweet girl. We wanted to make sure her family knew she won't be forgotten.”Head volleyball coach Sharon Schmoll described the Karns City community as more like a family than a school district.

“Even though Elizabeth was only here for a short time ... to leave such an impression on so many teenagers, that's a wonderful legacy to leave,” Schmoll said.Jason Hackwelder recalled how his daughter loved the Beatles and sometimes sang the words to Beatles hits “Let It Be” and “Get By With a Little Help From My Friends.”He and his wife can identify with the latter.“This support has meant the world to us,” Hackwelder said.“The way the community has rallied around us, lifted us ... I can't describe what that means. We feel the love,” his wife said.“That's what Elizabeth was all about.”

Helmet sticker for Elizabeth Hackwelder, submitted photo
A family photo of Elizabeth, Jason, Tara and Celtan Hackwelder. Submitted photo
Jason coaching the KC football team. Photo by Holly Mead
Jason coaching the KC football team.Photo by Holly Mead
Karns City volleyball players wear hair ribbons in memory of Elizabeth Hackwelder.submitted photo
Karns City football players wore stickers on their helmets with the slogan #ForElizabeth this season.
Karns City football coach Jason Hackwelder talks with his players during practice Tuesday.Holly Mead/Special to the Eagle
Karns City teacher and football coach Jason Hackwelder talks with a group of players, including No. 75 Dakota Hilliard, during practice Tuesday.PHOTOGRAPHY BY Holly Mead/Special to the Eagle
Karns City football helmet sticker in honor of Elizabeth Hackwelder Held by senior FB player, Josh GriffithsPhoto by Holly Mead
Jason coaching the KC football team. Photo by Holly Mead