Like many teens, Makenzie Barchiesi’s schedule is packed.
The 15-year-old Waynesburg Central High School sophomore juggles school work, extracurricular activities and volunteer work.
But unlike most high school students, Barchiesi has overcome a series of strokes and a brain aneurysm, which have given her a different perspective on life.
The experience has made Barchiesi realize she isn’t invincible, and she wants to make the most of her time.
“I learned life is a gift, not to be taken for granted,” said Barchiesi.
The straight-A student tutors during and after school, has a role in the upcoming high school play, “The Little Princess,” is involved in several clubs, including the Conservation Club, is a member of the track and field team, sings in the chorus and at open mic nights, participates in Love Greene, a service project coordinated through First Presbyterian Church of Waynesburg, and teaches fifth-grade CCD classes at St. Ann Roman Catholic Church.
For her perseverance and commitment to helping others, Barchiesi has been selected as the recipient of the Observer-Reporter ExtraORdinary Person award for October. The award is underwritten by Washington Auto Mall.
Alice Matis, who was Barchiesi’s teacher for the gifted and talented program from third through ninth-grade, marvels at Barchiesi’s persistence and drive.
“Makenzie is the poster child for resilience. Through the stroke, the seizures, the brain surgery, she remained upbeat. She never let things get her down,” said Matis. “She doesn’t give up. Nobody pushes her, she pushes herself.”
Having a stroke at Barchiesi’s age is rare. Annually, about 2,000 kids her age – she was 12 – suffer a stroke. oddly, noted Barchiesi’s mother, Dawn Calabrese, five students in the Central Greene School District have suffered a stroke in the past five years.
Barchiesi recalled the night she had a stroke.
On June 19,2017, she spent the day at Lions Club Park and played Uno with friends.
That night, she took Tylenol for a pounding headache and went to bed at 10:30 p.m.
At about 3:30 a.m., Barchiesi’s younger sister, Joei, who was sleeping next to Barchiesi, noticed her sister’s breathing seemed different and woke their father, Stephen Barchiesi.
He was alarmed Barchiesi couldn’t speak or sit up, and called 911. Barchiesi was flown by helicopter to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where she spent eight days.
During the hospital stay, an angiogram revealed an aneurysm on her carotid artery.
Barchiesi said she considers the stroke a blessing “because if I hadn’t had the stroke, they wouldn’t have found the aneurysm. If the aneurysm hadn’t been fixed, it could have taken my life.”
On August 24 – two months and four days after suffering the stroke – Barchiesi walked into Margaret Bell Middle School for the first day of eighth-grade classes.
She was greeted by students and faculty who wore gray and purple shirts that read, in part, “Kenzie Girl Strong.”
Barchiesi’s recovery was challenging. As a result of the first stroke, she lost the ability to talk, walk, or move her right side. She was confined to a wheelchair.
She underwent intensive physical therapy five days a week, five hours a day, at Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy Associates in Waynesburg.
She also underwent occupational therapy and speech therapy to regain the ability to talk and to write.
“I wanted to get back to school and I just wanted to be normal, so I did everything I could to try to get back to normal,” she said.
On February 2, 2018, Barchiesi underwent brain surgery at the Cleveland Clinic to repair the aneurysm. During the surgery, she suffered a second stroke, which left her with 20% vision loss in her left eye.
A two-time school spelling bee champion, Barchiesi participated in the annual bee one week after undergoing aneurysm surgery. She failed to defend her title, but was thrilled to take part in the bee.
Calabrese said Barchiesi’s stroke and subsequent health issues have brought the family closer together and encouraged them all to “spread kindness and love in small ways to give back for all we’ve been given.”
Barchiesi agreed, noting she feels grateful for the people who have helped her during her journey.
She is motivated to help others through programs such as Love Greene project, where she and her team recently tended the garden of an elderly woman who is physically unable to keep it up. The group also painted walls in the halllway of the Eva K. Bowlby Public Library.
She has volunteered for the Linda Hopkins Memorial Ride, an event that benefits Make-a-Wish.
And Barchiesi donated a massage chair purchased for her through a Go Fund Me campaign to another Waynesburg teen who suffered a stroke.
“Once I completed all my therapies, I wanted to give back. I wanted to help others,” said Barchiesi. “I wanted to be kinder, more understanding. I watched my sisters work with me and encourage me and be by my side when I felt like I couldn’t go anymore. They gave so much of themselves for me. So it’s only fair that I help others. Plus, even helping someone in the smallest and simplest ways gives me an overwhelming sense of joy.”
Barchiesi plans to become a teacher, an occupation Matis believes the teen – a voracious reader and prolific writer – will excel in.
“Makenzie’s a genuine, good person who will be a great role model students can emulate,” said Matis. “She’s loving and caring and she’s the real deal. She’s my hero.”
Barchiesi is still undergoing additional tests for other medical issues, and has some limitations, but she said she will not let it hold her back.
“I reach as far as I can to enjoy the opportunities for what I can do, without dwelling on those I cannot,” she said. “I just keep pushing through this and I don’t give up, no matter how hard the struggle is sometimes.”
Washington Auto Mall underwrites a $500 donation to the charity of choice selected by ExtraORdinary Person winners. Barchiesi has chosen to make a donation to Colby’s Stars Foundation, Inc. The nonprofit organization, named after Waynesburg native Colby Simkovic, serves families in southwestern Pennsylvania and neighboring communities who have children suffering from various forms of cancer.