Kaylen Birk may be gone from sight, but she still lives in the hearts and minds of her family, friends and the Lincoln Elementary School community.
Kaylen would have turned seven on Sept. 20, but she passed away Sept. 15 of a rare and inoperable brain tumor.
Her mother, Kathy Birk, wouldn't let the fact that Kaylen was gone stop her from having the birthday party Kaylen wanted for everyone at Lincoln.
Having her cake, and more
When Kaylen was in the hospital she had dreamed about a having a big birthday party. She was specific on the details, telling her mother that she wanted an ice cream cake with vanilla ice cream and chocolate frosting. She wanted it to be adorned with a pink heart and say "Happy Birthday" spelled out in gummy bears. The cake at her birthday party had all of that and more.
The party was attended by the entire Lincoln student body and many parents. Students released butterflies, and first-graders said goodbye in a poem.
Kathy Birk spoke to the students, telling them that although Kaylen was gone, they should look her passing in another way.
"Don't be so sad," she told them. "When you release those butterflies they're going to fly away and you won't be able to see them, but you know they're still there and Kaylen is still here. She's right here in our hearts. We couldn't let this seventh year go by without a celebration."
Kathy had originally wanted to release balloons instead of butterflies, but couldn't due to concerns about student's latex allergies.
That didn't stop her fellow parents from planning a surprise balloon release for her. Over 50 parents were involved in releasing 200 white and blue balloons. Light blue was Kaylen's favorite color.
"I thought 'you know we need to make this happen,' " said Mona Pruhs, one of the main organizers of the release, adding, "We were desperate to do something to help."
Shortly after Pruhs started reaching out to parents asking for help, she received an email. It was from Shaun Kamps, a parent who wanted to do his part. It read: "I paid for the balloons. It was the least I could do."
Around the time of Kaylen's diagnosis last spring, one of the Birk's neighbors had shown support by putting light blue ribbons on every tree on both sides of Birks' block. Because the ribbons had faded, they were changed on Sept. 14, the day that Kaylen went into the hospital for the last time.
Nancy Robjohns, a parent who helped with the balloon release, said "When I told my son that Kaylen had passed away, he said 'I thought something had happened because the ribbons changed color.' "
Relishing her last school days
Kaylen's father, John, described her as strong and smart for her age - "wise beyond her years," he said.
In fact, she wouldn't let her illness stop her from being an ordinary girl. She wanted to stay in school.
The Birks set up an individualized education plan for her to continue to go to Lincoln while she was being treated. Kaylen went to school until the day before she went to the hospital for the last time.
John said that Kaylen's maturity helped her deal with her disease. "Remember how strong she was," he added, "Maybe that can help children be better people."
In addition to her parents, Kaylen is survived an older brother, Thomas.
Your link to the biggest stories in the suburbs delivered Thursday mornings.
Enter your e-mail address above and click "Sign Up Now!" to begin receiving your e-mail newsletter Get the Newsletter!
- Wauwatosa Senior Meals: Week of Aug. 10
- J. Crew Mercantile to open store at The Mayfair Collection (1)
- Art gallery featuring work of at-risk youth opens in Wauwatosa
- Wauwatosa Senior Meals: Week of Aug. 3
- Wednesday house fire causes $100,000 in damage to Tosa home
- Wauwatosa Mystery Photo Contest: July 30
- In Brief: July 30
- Streetscape project moves to Tosa's Common Council (2)
- Wauwatosa woman believed to be oldest in state
- A Wauwatosa artist's unique work will be on display at the Firefly Art Fair