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Vickroy: Remembering Kaylah with music, poetry and new safety measures

IsabellWelsh (left) Aleksi Kobylecky (right) who were classmates Kaylah Lentine (picture right) console one another during tribute Hometown girl Oak

Isabella Welsh (left) and Aleksi Kobylecky (right), who were classmates of Kaylah Lentine (picture right), console one another during a tribute to the Hometown girl at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School in Oak Lawn, Illinois, Friday, May 3, 2013. Kaylah was killed a year ago while crossing Southwest Highway at Cicero Avenue. The gathering was meant to honor her and to discuss possible safety measures that could be put in place at that intersection. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 6, 2013 6:34AM



A year ago this weekend, Kaylah Lentine was celebrating her 14th birthday at a sleepover party with friends. They sang, laughed and made a video parody of “The Hunger Games.”

In a bittersweet nod to life’s unpredictability, those same friends, along with members of Kaylah’s large extended family, gathered Friday — Kaylah’s birthday — at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School to remember the girl who not only changed them for the better but changed them for good. The mourners sang, laughed and watched a snippet of Kaylah’s version of “The Hunger Games.”

Kaylah died May 25, 2012, one day after she was struck by a pickup truck near the intersection of Southwest Highway and Cicero Avenue in Oak Lawn.

Apparently having missed the bus, she was rushing to school that morning for a special assembly. Her grandfather and stepfather were already seated in the school’s auditorium, eager to watch her receive a leadership award.

“The irony of that is kind of brutal,” said Kaylah’s father, James Lentine, of Frankfort.

Video footage of Kaylah’s tragic crossing, acquired from a nearby business, shows the teen making it safely across westbound traffic to a median island, but soon after she steps into eastbound lanes, she disappears from view, said her mother, Krista Wilkinson, of Hometown.

“We think maybe someone stopped to let her cross and she didn’t see the truck coming in the other lane,” Wilkinson said.

The next day, Kaylah was declared brain dead, and her organs were donated, a gesture she had prophetically soapboxed about just weeks before her death.

Kaylah’s family has spent the past year campaigning for the installation of updated safety measures at that intersection.

“There is 21st century traffic there but the crosswalk is from the 1930s,” Lentine said. Not only do pedestrians have to cross several lanes of traffic, there is no pedestrian signal instructing them when it is safe to do so, he said.

Southwest Highway is under the jurisdiction of Oak Lawn, while Cicero Avenue falls under state jurisdiction. The family has appealed to the village, Cook County and the Illinois Department of Transportation to make the intersection safer.

“We don’t want another child to be killed crossing that street,” Wilkinson said.

Process has begun

IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller said the department has recommended traffic signal modernization for that intersection. The project was submitted as a candidate for inclusion in a future Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), she said.

Jennifer Killen, bureau chief for transportation and planning with the Cook County Highway Department, said applications were recently filed, accompanied by letters of support for the project from Cook County Commissioners Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood) and John Daley (D-Chicago), as well as state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-Evergreen Park) and Oak Lawn officials.

The project, Killen said, would add “Walk”/”Don’t Walk” signals and would realign the crosswalk, minimizing crossing distance, as well as install accessible ramps that are in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Countdown signals, which let the pedestrian know how much time he has to clear the intersection, cannot be installed there because of the proximity of train tracks, she said.

“We can’t have a signal go 18, 17, 16, 5 seconds to cross,” she said.

Pending approval of the $400,000 project, and providing it passes engineering and environmental studies, which are federal requirements of HSIP projects, work is expected to be completed within the 2014 fiscal year, Killen said.

Miller said IDOT has initiated the environmental survey in advance of funding approval.

Celebration of life

About 70 people attended Friday morning’s tribute, during which a park bench bearing Kaylah’s motto, “Live, Laugh, Love,” was dedicated. It will be placed at the front of the school.

Kathryn Ringhofer praised Kaylah’s insight and kindness. The Spanish teacher recalled how one day she came into class and found a bouquet of lilacs on her desk. She’d been having a tough week and Kaylah must have sensed that. After she learned from another student that Kaylah was the anonymous gifter, Ringhofer approached the teen.

“Kaylah simply said, ‘I knew you loved them.’ That’s the kind of person she was,” Ringhofer said.

Ringhofer encouraged those in attendance to keep Kaylah’s memory alive through acts of kindness.

Emmy Kenny recalled Kaylah’s sense of humor and her determination to learn new things. Kaylah, she said, once taught herself the words to the SpongeBob SquarePants song in German.

Emmy also regaled the audience with a story about the time she came to visit Kaylah while she was grounded. When Kaylah’s stepdad, Bob Nelson, came home unexpectedly, Emmy hid in a closet until he needed to use the bathroom and she could safely sneak out of the house.

Shawnee Masters, Marty Feigl and Aleksi Kobylecky took turns reading some of their dear friend’s poems.

Principal Paul Enderle said, “I am a better educator and a better teacher because of Kaylah. I think each of us here is a better person because of her, too.

“Her legacy will live on here,” Enderle said.

Sara Mason and Alex Overland performed a vocal duet of “For Good.” And the OLHMS band played “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, Kaylah’s favorite band.

Teacher Noreen Williams reminded everyone how blessed Kaylah had been during her short life.

“She had so many people who loved her, parents who were proud of her and so many friends,” Williams said. “So many people live their lives and never experience what Kaylah had every day.”



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