During a recent first-hour career exploration class, Jenison High School senior Kate Veldink was shocked to hear her name announced over the school intercom as one of the finalists for homecoming court.

“I didn’t know how to react at first,” the 17-year-old said on Tuesday, Oct. 13. “Then a couple seconds later it kind of settled in and I was super happy.”

Veldink, who has a rare genetic disorder called ataxia-telangiectasia, was caught in disbelief a second time when she was crowned Homecoming Queen during the football game’s halftime festivities earlier this month.

“It was awesome,” Veldink said. “I never expected to ever have that experience.”

But the surprise didn’t stop there. Her friends and classmates are reaching out to Ellen DeGeneres in hope that the celebrity will feature Veldink and her story on her nationally syndicated television show, “The Ellen Show.”

“I think that Kate is a person who people can look up to and can learn from her,” said Veldink’s longtime friend, Maddy Maurice. “She looks at life with such a unique perspective and brings humor into some of the hardest times.”

Veldink and Maurice, 17, have been friends since they were 5 years old. Late last week, Maurice started a hashtag trend on social media among her classmates —#KateVeldinkOnEllen – which has spread throughout the school and now the Jenison community.

“It made me feel happy and proud that we live in a community like Jenison where we really recognize who you are on the inside that counts — a disability doesn’t define you,” Maurice said. “Knowing Kate my entire life, I think she deserved it (Homecoming Queen) because she’s one of the best people I know.”

When Veldink was about 18 months old, her parents, Mary and Dave Veldink, realized she was having difficulty keeping her balance. While a majority of toddlers at that age commonly stumble while learning to walk, Kate Veldink’s “tippyness” was more pronounced, her mother said.

During a three-year investigation, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore diagnosed Kate Veldink with ataxia-telangiectasia when she was 4 years old. The rare genetic disease attacks children, causing progressive loss of muscle control, immune system problems, and a high rate of cancer, according to the A-T Children’s Project, based in Florida.

“She could not walk without tipping,” Mary Veldink said of Kate, who is among the faces pictured on the A-T Children’s Project’s website

After the diagnosis, Kate Veldink underwent physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy to help her manage daily life activities.

Kate was in first grade when she began using a walker. When that became too difficult a couple of years later, she moved to a scooter, often giving her friends a ride while in the backyard.

In fifth grade, Kate began using a wheelchair. She is now on her second chair — an electric one that zips through the halls of Jenison High School.

“Everything is difficult for her — daily living skills, everything has to be adapted,” Mary Veldink said.

Through it all, Kate has been surrounded by the unconditional love and support of her family, friends and school community. The Young Life participant enjoys shopping, watching movies and fashion with her friends. She relishes in a summertime swim since the water helps keep her body stable.

“They have been there through the good, the bad and the ugly,” Kate’s mother said of her friends. “They have made her a normal high school life and for that, we are forever thankful.”

Kate often visits her older sister, Abby, at Hope College — and is expected to join her there next fall when she begins the college’s Ready for Life program and early childhood education studies.

But the high school senior believes it was her younger sister, Olivia, who inspired her to live life to the fullest. The two siblings would “do everything together,” including going on golf cart rides and playing Nintendo Wii, Kate said.

Olivia, who also had A-T, died last November when a virus attacked her immune system. She was 13.

“Her outlook on life was so positive and she taught me to have that same outlook,” Kate said of her late sister.

When asked what Olivia would have thought about her older sister being crowned Jenison’s Homecoming Queen, Kate said: “I think she would be very proud.”

Cathy Owen, the Jenison schools’ paraprofessional who has been working with Kate since third grade, hopes sharing Kate’s story will bring awareness to A-T.

“She is a really mature young lady — very humble and very funny- which a lot of people don’t realize,” Owen said. “I’m very blessed to have been able to do this. She’s like my own child.”

Author: Kyle Moroney covers suburban schools and general assignments for MLive/Grand Rapids Press. Email her at kmoroney@mlive.com or follow her on Twitter or Facebook

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