Ella Kucharski likes to say she had the longest Christmas break ever. The third grader, who attends St. Andrew’s Parish School in Delavan, left school in late December just like all her classmates — but because of an unexpected operation, Ella was not able to return until May.

Nine years ago, Ella was born with liver and kidney diseases. When she was just 2, she needed a kidney transplant, and found a donor in her own dad, Dave.

“We knew down the road that she would need a new liver, too,” said Ella’s mom, Heather Kucharski. In March 2017, Ella was added to the organ transplant waiting list.

Just a few days after Christmas, freshly home from visiting family out of state, the family got the call — a liver was available. Ella’s initial transplant surgery took place on Dec. 28, but it would be more than four months before she was able to rejoin her classmates at
St. Andrew’s.

And in the many weeks that followed the surgery, as the Kucharskis worked to support Ella’s recovery, their parish and school family worked to support them.

One of Heather Kucharski’s first calls during the surgery was to Ella’s third-grade teacher, Michele Raykovich. With the help of St. Andrew’s Deacon Phil Kilkenny, Raykovich immediately put together a prayer service for Ella on the day the students returned from Christmas break.

As it happened, on Jan. 2 when the students were gathering for that prayer service, Ella was being rushed back into surgery to remedy unexpected bleeding. “Knowing that our classmates and friends and teachers were praying just gave us so much comfort and so much peace during this unexpected turn,” said Heather. A video of the prayer service was made so that it could be shared with Ella after surgery.

St. Andrew’s IT/Media specialist Juliet Larson set up Google Classroom for Ella, allowing her to access assignments and other resources easily from her bed at Children’s Hospital. Larson also installed FaceTime on the school’s iPads so that Ella could virtually join the class
when possible.

After the family returned home, school personnel made regular visits to the house to ensure that Ella was able to keep abreast of her studies and feel included in her classmates’ activities.

Raykovich, who retired in June after 27 years of teaching at St. Andrew’s, visited the Kucharskis several times a week to tutor Ella personally. “I asked her for recommendations on a tutor, and she said, ‘Absolutely not — I’m going to come and do it,’” said Heather. “She’s probably one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met as far as teaching her kids.”

“When I was tutoring Ella, her classmates would ask each morning how she was, did she talk about them, and did she say anything funny,” said Raykovich, who called Ella “an amazing, God-like girl” who is the class “jokester.”

St. Andrew art teacher Nikki Marsicano also volunteered her time to visit the Kucharskis at home, keeping Ella up to date with the big third-grade project of the year — an African animal study that spans the entire second semester and incorporates both writing and art skills. Marsicano also helped the students make a huge “Get Well Soon” banner festooned with unicorns and signed by every teacher and student in the school. With the help of third-grade classroom mom Mary Robers, the students also made a flannel blanket for Ella.
The home visits in particular were “the highlight of all of our days,” said Heather. “We were basically living out of the house so we wouldn’t catch anything.”

Because of Ella’s compromised immunity from the surgeries, the family had to sequester themselves at home during the flu season — even Ella’s 4-year-old sister Anna had to stop attending Delavan Nursery Center, which is run by St. Andrew parishioner Sue Lefel on the parish school campus. Lefel not only held Anna’s spot at the school until she could return, but also sent class crafts and worksheets home with Raykovich to keep Anna in the loop with her own classmates.

St. Andrew Principal Randy Green said that this kind of support is something that is typical at the school. “The culture of all smaller parochial schools is one huge family. They’ve been with Ella since kindergarten,” he said. Green called the dedication of his teachers “inspiring
and infectious.”

“This is what God puts us here for,” he said. “This is our mission. This is our true calling.”

The Kucharskis have been parishioners at St. Andrew for more than 10 years; both Ella and Anna were baptized at the church. They have known since Heather was 20 weeks pregnant with Ella that their little girl’s health issues would require a lot of faith and prayer to endure.

“We’re very lucky to cling to our faith through that time,” said Heather. “We believed in and submitted to God’s plan for our family.”

And the support of the St. Andrew community has just been the latest manifestation of God’s support on Ella’s journey, she said.

“I’ve been blown away and so grateful for everything that they’ve done,” she said. “God was definitely showing his love through their actions.”