At graduation, Colorado girls’ blooming friendship takes center stage
The plan calls for Kati Pietrafeso to take a seat with her Overland High School graduating class in a chair at the end of a row. Then, when it’s time for her best friend, Elena Nevel, to walk across the stage Friday and receive her diploma, Kati can quickly rise and join her.
If all goes well, they will take the last steps of their high school careers together, inseparable as they’ve been all year.
“It would feel really good to help her celebrate all she’s accomplished,” says 18-year-old Kati. “It’s a big day for me, but it’s also a really big day for her.”
Elena, also 18, cannot express what the moment would mean for her. Diagnosed with significant developmental delays and severe autism, she is, for the most part, nonverbal except for a few words, spoken only when prompted.
And yet, graduation represents more than a mile marker in Kati’s continuing academic career and Elena’s move from the special-education program in the Cherry Creek School District to adult services in Denver.
It’s a touchstone for a transcendent friendship.
“I think the essence is we don’t have to communicate verbally,” Kati says. “We just understand each other and have fun. She’s mischievous, she has a great sense of humor. But sometimes people can’t see past her little outbursts, and it makes them think she doesn’t have a personality. But she does — the best personality ever.”
With Elena’s endearing traits come challenges. She requires constant “line-of-sight” supervision. Her parents, Shepard Nevel and Anna Alejo, secure their house with deadbolts on every door as a precaution against Elena’s penchant for wandering, utterly without fear, into the neighborhood.
As she has grown strong and healthy, Elena’s lack of impulse control has prompted additional measures. Anna and Shepard plan family outings more carefully. Trips to a restaurant require an exit strategy.
Elena’s finished drink could suddenly become a projectile. Another diner might unexpectedly find a hungry Elena “sharing” his meal.
“There are all these spontaneous contacts with people,” Shepard says, “and the overwhelming majority respond with such kindness.”
Elena has benefited from many caregivers over the years, from professionals to college students — usually enrolled in psychology, social work or special-education majors — seeking part-time work. Beyond immediate family and friends, virtually all her relationships have been carefully arranged.
And then, a few months ago, they learned from Elena’s teacher at Overland about an emerging relationship between their daughter and another girl. That it blossomed on its own brought them unexpected joy.
“When you have a special-needs child, you crave typical experiences for your children — anything they can do that is like the life of a typical teenager,” says Anna. “For this to have happened spontaneously at school, we just love the fact that this young woman has taken such an interest in Elena.”
Chuck Doudna, a special-education teacher who oversees 43 students in Overland’s Integrated Learning Center, works with Elena in a life-skills based program, a set routine of exercises in everything from hygiene to work skills.
He also oversees many students who volunteer to help out with special-needs classmates. They come in pursuit of community-service hours or, on occasion, to catch a glimpse of a career possibility.
Kati Pietrafeso came looking for both experiences, he says. But she also brought something more — empathy and appreciation for the personalities behind the disabilities. Elena seemed to grasp that.
For Kati, the relationship began in an almost clinical way. Working as a “student assist” in the ILC room, she became fascinated by Elena and her behaviors.
Over time, that interest became mutual.
“Our kids feel and sense that people want to be around them,” Doudna says. “That contributed from Elena’s side, the feeling that this person enjoys being around me.”
Although they’ve known each other since the start of the school year, there was a moment — in January, as Kati recalls — when she realized that their connection went deeper than the classroom relationship.
“One day we were getting ready to go home from school and she just came up and wrapped her arms around me and gave me a big hug,” Kati recalls. “And that’s the day I knew we were going to be friends.
“Elena has so much to say, and it’s hard for her to express it. I think it’s nice to have a friend by your side, rather than a teacher always, or a therapist always. Just have a friend.”
When Kati, who took an Advanced Placement studio-art class, wanted to capture Elena as part of a photo project, she e-mailed Anna to ask permission. Almost as an afterthought, she asked whether it would be OK if she spent some time with Elena outside of the school setting.
Both Anna and Shepard were ecstatic at Kati’s request. She began coming over to their house, working with one of the regular caregivers, but soon she and Elena started making excursions out in public. Kati admits that, at first, she wasn’t sure if she’d be up to the challenge.
Interactions with Elena can be hands-on propositions, and Kati worried that while the two are roughly the same size, Elena might be a little stronger. And when Elena objects to something, clutching and grabbing can ensue.
“But because she’s such a close friend of mine, I just couldn’t not do it,” Kati says. “I’m fine with the hands-on part of it, because it’s necessary.”
Elena has proven reliable when it comes to maintaining contact with Kati in public, particularly while crossing streets. They have gone to the museum, to the planetarium, to the zoo, and they’ve frequently gone out to eat at Elena’s favorite, Chick-fil-A, and even slightly more formal places such as TGI Friday’s.
Shepard and Anna quickly learned to trust Kati’s ability to oversee Elena with a calm demeanor and command of situations far beyond her years. At Overland, Doudna says he finds himself talking to Kati as a special-education colleague more than a student.
“I kind of have to catch myself,” he says, “in the sense that she’s not a staff member, but a senior in high school.”
Graduation has loomed as a stressful undertaking for both Elena and her parents. Her reaction to walking across the stage at the University of Denver’s Ritchie Center on Friday remains a wild card.
A school staff member will be there to help, but the consensus seems to be that if anyone can pull this off, it’s Kati, who brings an almost magically calming effect to their relationship.
Whatever happens at graduation, the friendship will endure. Kati plans to enroll in community college to complete some prerequisites before moving on to the University of Colorado Denver, where she will major in special education. Her time with Elena has cemented that desire.
Kati already has planned to spend time with Elena this summer on a daily basis. Not all of her other friends understand the bond.
“They ask me what kind of relationship I have with her,” Kati says, “and I tell them: She’s my best friend.”