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Extra Effort: La Farge senior uses art, optimism to get through loss and illness
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LA CROSSE TRIBUNE EXTRA EFFORT AWARD

Extra Effort: La Farge senior uses art, optimism to get through loss and illness

From the COLLECTION: Meet the Extra Effort students in the program's 25th year series
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Kayla Brown has faced a number of obstacles in her life since day one.

The La Farge High School senior and 2021 Extra Effort recipient has had to overcome losing both of her parents, while also battling a genetic disease that impacts her movement — but she’s persevered with a “colorful” approach to life.

Her teachers, and even Brown herself, describe her as having a glass-half-full kind of attitude about things, even in her hardest moments.

Brown was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in 2018, a genetic disease that progressively weakens and deteriorates muscles in the body.

“When I was in elementary school, I was doing pretty good. I was one of the fastest kids in my class,” she said. “There weren’t a whole lot of signs. But by the time I hit the summer of fifth grade, my body started slowing down, and it really hit me, and I knew.”

Brown’s mom, Sheila, and two uncles also had the disease.

“As a child, I kind of knew what I would be headed for, and thankfully the type of muscular dystrophy I have, it doesn’t kill people,” Brown said.

“I knew that the struggles that I would face, I at least had someone that had been through it as well, that could be there for me,” she said.

Muscular dystrophy is a group of diseases; it can take many forms, Brown said, and it “varies from person-to-person.” In her family, she said, most have ended up in wheelchairs. Brown currently uses a cane to help her when needed.

On top of her disease, Brown has also lost both of her parents — her dad, Jeff, in 2015, and her mom in 2019. She now lives in her childhood home, which she will take ownership of when she turns 18, with her aunt and uncle who help out.

“From day one she’s had to fight through difficulties,” said La Farge art teacher Alison Benson, who added that she’s known Brown since she was little, teaching her in Sunday school.

“For her to watch her mom go through it and then know that she has it, and then of course lose her mom at a young age is so heartbreaking,” Benson said.

“But she’s never wanted a pity party. Ever. She’s always fought through that adversity and just, you know, she fends for herself,” she said.

A lot of this perseverance has been developed through Brown’s artwork.

“Art, it is a very good outlet,” Brown said. “I like working with clay and yarn, things with my hands. I like seeing the finished product, like, alright, I did this, I made this. It was a skein of yarn when I started and now it’s a hat. Now it’s something that can bring joy to someone else.”

Brown specifically likes working with clay and ceramics, as well as needlework, a pastime she said she gets from her mom who liked to create latch-hook artwork, crocheted blankets and more.

And this year she’s been doing an independent sewing class that has turned into much more.

One day during the class, La Farge’s family and consumer science teacher, Kristine Da Prato said, Brown brought in a loom set and taught herself to use it, deciding eventually to start making hats for people in the community — Christmas presents for teachers and donations to the local church.

It’s this ability to be self-motivated that Da Prato said makes her most proud of Brown.

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“This independent study is really just her. She came to me and asked if she could do it. I said sure, I’ve never done this before and we’ll figure it out,” Da Prato said. “And she is going above and beyond my expectations.”

“She loves it because she gets to choose colors and combine yarns and she really likes that part of it. The color and the texture,” Da Prato said. “In the matter of like three months she has made 53 hats.”

But initiative is only just one thing that artwork has brought out in Brown.

“We were able to spend time together talking about life,” Da Prato said. “She has a really good heart and a really good perspective on the world. I think it has been helpful for her to be able to talk about that, because she doesn’t always see the world how other people do, because she’s had so many unique experiences.”

“I’ve always said art’s a form of expression, and she’s got plenty to express,” Benson said. “I think it’s just been an outlet for her to do what she wants without being judged for it.

“She’s a very expressive girl and she doesn’t care what others think. She’ll stand up for herself and just do what she wants because she enjoys it,” Benson said.

And doing what she enjoys is exactly what Brown plans to do after high school. She said that immediately, higher education isn’t for her, instead she’s going to maintain her childhood home and aim to join a small, local business that works with “art and creativity.”

“My father always wanted this house to stay in the family and on this land,” Brown said of her home that sits on a scenic road outside of town, surrounded by nearly 55 acres of woodland.

“They’re good memories,” Brown said of growing up in the house. “I was a bit of a lonely child being the only kid out in the middle of the country, but we have fruit trees and berries, and then in the summer you don’t need to go to the grocery store, you just have everything you need to eat and drink at the house. It’s nice to have the independence.

Still, Brown said that she has a circle of “true, good friends” that have stuck beside her, as well as a strong community that gives her support.

Recently, when Brown entered treatment for depression and anxiety, the school responded by altering an inservice day for staff to dedicate it to mental health training.

“We are a strong community,” Brown said.

“In the beginning,” Brown said she got a lot of “slack” for having muscular dystrophy. “People noticed that I walked weird and I couldn’t move the same as other children.

“But now everyone in class,” she said, “they’re patient, they don’t make fun of me and they know it’s going to take me a little longer to get where I’m going than them.

“They let me be who I am,” Brown said.

Despite all of these hardships, Brown continues to try and find the brighter parts to life.

“I know the world isn’t fair, but I try to see the bright side to situations. Sometimes, I do kind of get caught up in the dark side of things,” she said, “but even in crappy situations you can always find some small, bright side, or some joke to lighten the situation.”

For her senior art project Brown is currently painting designs on all of the stools in the art room.

“They’re so colorful — and that’s Kayla. She can be a bright personality,” Benson said.

And Brown reminds herself of where all of her optimism and perseverance has gotten her.

“This doesn’t sound like a huge accomplishment, but when you have depression, anxiety and are an orphan with muscular dystrophy, finishing high school is a pretty decent accomplishment,” Brown said. “And just getting through life.”

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