Run honors daughter, friend, donor

Few area residents have had the lasting impact of Kelsey Mikel, whose foresight turned her own tragic death into another’s ability to live.
On Thanksgiving morning, the annual “I’m Thankful Four” — a 4- and 2-mile run/walk — will honor Kelsey’s life and her ultimate gift in death.
Kelsey was involved in an auto accident Aug. 20, 2004 and was declared brain dead the next morning. Because she signed up as an organ donor when she got her driver’s license, the 16-year-old NorthWood student from Wakarusa helped save the life of Audrey Babcock, a 2 1/2-year-old from Greenwood who needed a kidney transplant.
Generosity and graciousness were normal for Kelsey.
“She was such a giving person,” Kelsey’s father Mark Mikel said. “She helped people out in ways we had no idea of. Just last January, a young man stopped my wife and said, ‘When I was a freshman and she was a junior, I was lost and had no idea where I was going in the hallways, and Kelsey helped me.’ That was just her nature. So for her to be able to give her organs was just an extension of that.”
Audrey was born with multiple disabilities, and since receiving Kelsey’s kidney after being on the transplant list for only three days, has thrived beyond expectations. The two families have developed a remarkable bond, love and respect for one another.
“Both parties have to let their caseworkers know they want to have direct contact,” Mikel said. “Starting in 2006, we talked back and forth and got to know one another and in 2007 we met for the first time. Since then we always keep track of each other’s family, birthdays and so on.”
Kelsey seems to live on in Audrey. Studies have shown organ recipients can develop cravings for some of the donor’s favorite foods. While she was still limited to soft foods, Audrey developed a liking to salsa, yogurt and broccoli, three of Kelsey’s favorites.
“That was really an interesting connection,” Mikel said.
Audrey and her family will join the Mikels at this year’s race packet pickup the night before the Thanksgiving morning event. On race day, they will line up together to walk and run, with now 8-year-old Audrey being pushed in a stroller.
“The families have connected so closely,” Mikel said. “When they told me they were thinking about coming up for the race this year, I said, ‘There’s no thinking about it. You’re going to do it and we’re going to make it happen.’ “
The annual event originally started in 2001, with a group getting together in Wakarusa to run on Thanksgiving morning.
“We got tired of driving up to Niles for the race there and paying $20 to get the same T-shirt every year,” said Mikel, who was NorthWood’s cross country coach for 10 years. “It started with 20 or 30 people who would bring cans of food to donate to the Family Christian Development Center.”
When Kelsey died, the event took on new meaning. Knowing Kelsey’s birthday was Nov. 10, friends of the Mikel family suggested a run/walk to fund a scholarship in her memory. Shortly thereafter, the Kelsey Mikel Memorial Foundation was created. It gives two scholarships each year to NorthWood seniors.
“Kelsey was the business manager of the yearbook, so we give a yearbook scholarship through the Dollars for Scholars program,” Mikel said. “Then our board selects the recipient for the ‘Dreams Come True Scholarship.’ The Wizard of Oz was Kelsey’s favorite movie, so we took that theme and made it into a scholarship in her memory.”
Over $33,000 in scholarships and donations to NorthWood programs have been given out. They are a memorial to Kelsey, but also a thank you to the community for the support the Mikels received in their most difficult days and hours.
“The support was incredible,” Mikel said. “Even the night of Kelsey’s accident, there were probably 75 people at the hospital with us, and we had to beg them to leave at about 1:30 a.m. (Nappanee mayor and funeral director) Larry Thompson tells me her viewing was probably the largest they’ve ever had, somewhere around 2,300 people. The community, school, the cross country team and parents all wrapped their arms around us.”
A permanent memorial lives today to honor Kelsey, who was the NorthWood cross country team manager. A planted tree and engraved rock sit at the cross country course finish line, which is part of the I’m Thankful Four. For the Mikels, it is a day of celebration and togetherness.
“We enjoy seeing families start their Thanksgiving out with us, and a lot of people say it wouldn’t seem like Thanksgiving if they weren’t there,” Mikel said. “It has become a special time for us. We’re thinking about Kelsey, who she was and the gift that her 16 years were to us.”
For more information on the I’m Thankful Four, visit www.thankfulfour.org or e-mail Mikel at markmikel@frontier.com. Registration is available online at www.active.com. Pre-registered participants receive a long-sleeve T-shirt and water bottle.