At age 11, Avery Kazakewicz has already spent more time at the hospital than many people experience in their whole lives.
“I spent my seventh and my eighth birthday in the hospital,” she said.
On Wednesday, Avery enthusiastically welcomed a $10,000 surprise donation in her name to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation. She learned about the donation when she arrived at Horse ‘N Soul Riding Academy in North Strabane Township. The now-healthy sixth-grader, who also lives in North Strabane, has been taking riding lessons there for the last five months.
“I just feel like horses are very lovable,” Avery said of the newfound pursuit. “If they earn your trust, they’ll act like your best friends, and I love that.”
The nonprofit raises funds toward Children’s Hospital of UPMC, where Avery underwent a total of 10 rounds of chemotherapy, a liver transplant and other treatment stemming from hepatoblastoma, an uncommon liver cancer that typically affects young children. Avery didn’t know ahead of time about the event, which brought together more than 100 friends, family and others to Paradise Hills, the Gretna Road farm where the academy is located.
“All these people here are involved in her recovery and support. Her teachers are here. Her nurses and doctors couldn’t be because they’re helping other little kids right now,” said Avery’s father, Stephen Kazakewicz. “She’s excited to be able to help give back.”
Avery received her new liver four years ago. Instead of scaring her away from hospitals, the 9 or 10 months of her total stay made her want to become a nurse one day at Children’s.
Her illness and recovery also left her with a straightforward understanding of what she went through.
“Even though my liver had a tumor on it, and cancer, it kept working,” Avery said. “And (for) other kids, it doesn’t keep working.”
She said she recently supported her 14-year-old brother, Jacob, when his appendix had to be removed.
The donation to Children’s fundraising arm came from the ACE Hardware Foundation, which made Avery the subject of its eighth donation through the National All-Star program. Hospitals that belong to the Children’s Miracle Network of charities can nominate patients for the award. In turn, ACE uses the children to put a human face on the corporate initiative.
Avery’s mother, Nicole Kazakewicz, said organizers of the event wanted to choose a place that was special to Avery: “They asked, ‘Would you like it at a school? Is there some activity that she just loves?’ Horseback riding is her passion.”
Pamela Vennare, who owns Horse ‘N Soul and the host farm, said she also works with those with special needs and offers equine therapy. She said horses mirror people and pick up on non-verbal cues of human behavior, so they are helpful for working through trauma and other challenges that her clients may have gone through.
“This is more than horseback riding lessons,” Vennare added. “This is about life experiences that help us to go and benefit from the riding after, when we’re going through real-life stuff.”
Stephen said Avery followed a “long road” for the last few years. She had to catch up with the schoolwork she missed as well as recover physically.
“You’d be surprised at how kids are resilient,” Nicole added.