May 19, 2015
On Julia Palyok's last day of school last Wednesday, her teacher and classmates did a "rock ritual," all rubbing a small blue rock and pressing as much love and as many good wishes into it as they could before saying their goodbyes. But months before the rock ritual, Julia's Cutler Jewish Day School family gave her something much greater – the gifts of mobility and inclusion.
Seven-year-old Julia was born with spina bifida, which affects the development of the spinal cord and inhibits Julia's ability to walk. Normally confined to a wheelchair, Julia earlier this year developed an infection that prevents her from sitting or lying on her back for any length of time. On Friday, she was scheduled to have surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville to treat the infection.
Going about everyday activities around the house became a big enough challenge for Julia after she developed the infection.
But returning to school?
It was a concern for Julia's parents and doctors alike.
"As a kid, they need to be included," said Julia's mother, Juliana Palyok. "After a few days in the hospital, she was begging me to let her go back to school, and that was really, really hard."
Julia's second-grade teacher, Brent Petersen, and her seven classmates were eager to see her back, too.
Her doctors relented, and that's when her class devised a way to make getting around school and participating in activities more practical: the Julia Utility Vehicle, or JUV.
"We saw a need, and we talked about it," Petersen said. "How can we help Julia to still be included and be a part of the class and be mobile?"
With Petersen's help, the kids designed and constructed a rolling bed for Julia. It took about a month of planning and a week of construction to complete the rickshaw-like contraption that allows their friend to join them in the classroom and on the playground for activities.
The JUV was going to be a surprise for Julia. But when the class could no longer hide the project from her, she got to join in the construction, too.
Made with wooden palettes, borrowed wheels and a metal handle and railings, the JUV maneuvers smoothly through the hallways, with students taking turns driving while Julia, lying on her stomach, rides atop a light blue air mattress laid on the palettes.
"It made me a little excited" to find out about the JUV, Julia said. "My friends are good friends to me because I think they're really nice to me."
Her best friend at school, 8-year-old Luke Barhydt, said it makes him "a little sad" to think about Julia missing out on anything the class does.
"We don't want her to miss out on all the fun games we play," Luke said. "She is a nice and loving friend to me because, since my best friend moved to a different school, she's my new best friend."
Julia likes to draw dinosaurs because Luke likes them. Her favorite color is green, she likes sleeping late, and she eats Chick-fil-A almost every day.
Petersen describes Julia as super-smart, thoughtful and a bit quiet. She is caring and sensitive, her mother said, and often thinks of others more than herself.
Finding out about the class's plan to build the JUV was touching, Juliana Palyok said.
"This class is the most amazing group of kids," she said. "They are the most caring and devoted to one another. They're always helping each other. ... They're always united."
For Petersen, building the JUV was about more than just teaching his students academic skills such as problem solving, measuring and using tools to build.
"It was pretty amazing, not only from a building and academic sense, but from a community sense," Petersen said. "Saying, hey, this is somebody that is important to us, as we all are to each other, and we really want to make it possible for her to be included in as much as possible."
Last Wednesday, the day before her family was scheduled to travel to Nashville, her classmates gave her the love-pressed rock, a stack of hand-made cards and a poster board sign that read, "Good luck, Julia – We will miss you."
Julia could spend anywhere from one to three weeks in the hospital after her surgery and another two or three months recovering at home afterward. She can't wait to get back into the swimming pool this summer, where her mother says she's like a dolphin.
And, she can't wait to rejoin her friends at school.
Leaving school for the last time this year, Julia pushed herself up with her arms on the JUV, and Petersen scooped her up.
"Get lots of rest, and then you go be brave and come back and see us," Petersen told Julia before giving her a big hug. "We'll see you soon, and if not soon, then a little bit after soon." This story was originally published May 19, 2015, 1:42 PM.