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Madison Heights

June 11, 2014

Lamphere High remembers Kayla Kincannon

Friends celebrate caring person wise beyond her years

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Friends of Kayla Kincannon say she inspired others with her strong faith, caring heart and playful personality.
Kincannon’s meeting with her idol Taylor Swift last year was made possible by a campaign on Twitter organized by her friends.
 

MADISON HEIGHTS — Hundreds of purple balloons rose into the bright blue sky May 29 at the close of Lamphere High’s Clap Out, a school tradition where the staff and lowerclassmen cheer on the graduating seniors as they leave the school for the last time.

It was a beautiful sight made more so by the notes strung to the end of each balloon and the meaning behind them — letters to Kayla Kincannon, beloved friend to many at the school, who had passed away just the day before.

Kayla had been diagnosed with brain cancer back in 2011, when she was 16, and died at age 18 on May 28, just shy of her school graduation. Those who knew her — and students and staff say she had a way of making everyone feel like they knew her — say she had an “old soul” wiser than you’d expect from someone so young, yet with all the playfulness and creative passion of a teen excited about life.

“She was just a happy person,” said Kevin Tripp, one of the graduating seniors at Lamphere High. “You’d always see her in the halls smiling at everyone. She was just a happy person.”

Tripp and other friends of Kayla in the Class of 2014 came back to school the day after the Clap Out to reflect on Kayla with Jackie Gilmore, an English and history teacher at Lamphere High who often saw Kayla and her group of friends after hours.

“She was so funny,” Gilmore said, the other students nodding in agreement. “After school is out, after the bell rings, there are always kids in my classroom hanging out for hours, sometimes until I leave around 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. She was one of those kids singing songs, writing on my board, laughing, falling on the floor with her friends.

“I’d be like, ‘What time are you leaving?’” Gilmore said with a laugh. “She was just a normal teenager like the rest of them in the room. She loved to have fun. She was happy, with so many friends.”

Kayla was a “girly girl” who loved putting on makeup and curling her hair. She was very fond of the color purple — hence the balloons at the Clap Out. She was a voracious reader who often had her nose buried in a Bible or novels that captured her imagination, like “The Hunger Games.” When she wasn’t reading, she was writing poetry or singing songs or simply goofing around with friends. Her friends remember a silly side and a bit of a sarcastic streak — a wit that endeared Kayla to others.

She was very down to earth and accessible, then, but at the same time, she was a deep thinker and very spiritual.

“Her faith in God helped her get through it,” said Kristin Smith, a friend of Kayla’s. “That’s the biggest thing. Without it, I don’t think she would’ve come as far as she did.”

“She was very thoughtful, very deep, and very wise,” said Sherita Richardson, another of Kayla’s close friends. “Very mature for her age.”

“She had an old soul,” agreed Smith. “She was wise beyond her years.”

Kayla was a member of such proactive groups at Lamphere High as SADD and the PACT Club, as well as PUSH, the school’s Christian club. Her insights attracted an audience of young admirers.

“She’d talk about Scripture and uplift the other kids in that group,” Gilmore said. “They’d stare at her, waiting for her wisdom. She always had something to impart. It was a younger group, so they were always looking for that from her. Like Kristin said, it did seem like Kayla was an older soul. Everyone would see her come into the room and say, ‘Read something for us!’”

Kayla also had a way with the written word, made evident in her creative works.

“We went through her old poems, starting around April 2013 up through this March,” said Ismail Aijazuddin, another of Kayla’s friends. “They were all very well-composed. She had great poetic talent.”  

With so many students who cared so deeply for Kayla, it’s not surprising there was an overwhelming display of support as she underwent treatment. One of the most vivid examples was the successful social media campaign the students organized to put Kayla in touch with her celebrity idol, singer-songwriter Taylor Swift.

Kayla’s friend and fellow senior Alexis Hilliard started the Twitter campaign back in December 2012 under the hashtag, #OperationGetKaylaToMeetTaylorSwift. At first, it was circulated among students and staff, but soon it reached celebrities and pro athletes who would then re-tweet it to their followers.

Rody Younis, a friend of Kayla’s, said it was trending on Twitter. He found it fitting how everyone showed their care for Kayla.

“I didn’t know her too well our freshman and sophomore years, but even when I talked to her then, I could see she was a very intelligent person,” he said. “She had faith in God, and she really cared about people.”

The campaign was ultimately a success, and in December 2013, Kayla got to spend time with Swift down in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Kayla was overwhelmed (by the campaign),” Smith said. “There was so much love that she didn’t know what to do with herself.” 

Kayla consistently attended school until 2014. When she was at school, she didn’t talk about her illness or ongoing treatment. Friends say she was more concerned with how others were doing, and she focused on living in the moment and having a good time.

The students, meanwhile, were focused on doing everything they could for Kayla and her family. Tripp, who worked as a co-op at John Page Middle School, helping out in the front office, would often check in on Josh Kincannon, Kayla’s younger brother and only sibling, then an eighth-grader. Tripp, Younis and Aijazuddin would help him stay positive by bringing him along on volunteer efforts such as the interior renovations at the local VFW Hall, or the Cristy Berger Memorial Walk-a-thon in early May. They even collected donations from staff at Lamphere High to fund a trip to Dave & Buster’s.

Such kindness has meant a lot to the family. The Kincannons are so aware of how important their daughter was to the community that they waited until all of the students were safe at school before breaking the news of Kayla’s passing. They didn’t want anyone to be distracted while driving.

“The family looks at this like, ‘Wow, our child must’ve had a real impact on these kids, because they won’t stop,’” Gilmore said. “And (Kayla’s mom) is really concerned about them. When I talked to her earlier, she kept asking how the kids are handling it and if they’re OK. I shook my head at the phone. I’m asking how she is, and she’s asking about the kids. Amazing that her daughter passed away, and she still thinks about the right way to tell everyone at the school.”

When the school learned of Kayla’s passing, the day more or less ground to a stop.

“You’d see freshmen who didn’t really know Kayla walk over and hug people they didn’t even know. It says so much about this community and how we felt about Kayla,” Gilmore said. “The kids were always saying, ‘Tell her I said hello,’ ‘Tell her we’re praying for her,’ reaching out to the family, to her brother, taking him under their wing. That’s what this school did, and that’s what this school saw. I never saw them getting down on themselves and going, ‘Aww…’”

“Because that not what Kayla was about,” Smith said.

“Exactly,” Gilmore said. “The students were always asking what they can do and how they can help make a difference. That’s the true spirit of Kayla.”

Kayla’s friends are mobilizing “Team Kayla” to participate in the Head for the Cure Detroit 5k on Detroit’s riverfront at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 6. The event raises money to find a cure for brain cancer. To join the team or donate to the cause, visit online at www.headforthecure.org/detroit/hftc-detroit.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.