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1st Generation College Student

Gilbert senior Judith Ruiz-Ortiz about to make history in her family

Judith Ruiz-Ortiz tells her story of moving through Gilbert Schools with enthusiasm and a smile on her face. Even when she talks about the difficult times, there’s a nonchalance in her voice, almost as if her journey wasn’t out of the ordinary.

That’s the thing though; it wasn’t typical. Or easy. It was quite the opposite, actually, but that’s now a point of pride for the Gilbert High School senior who is less than a year away from embarking on a new voyage.

She’s a first generation American. And, soon enough, she’ll be a first generation college student too. You better believe that fact puts an extra skip in her step.

“I’ll be the first one in my family to go to college,” Judith says. “That puts a lot of pressure on me, but that’s OK. I’m excited for it.”

Let’s back up a few years, all the way back to 2010 when Judith entered kindergarten at Gilbert Elementary. Starting school is a scary time for all 5 and 6 year olds, but throw in the fact that Judith didn’t speak English and you get a better sense of what she was up against. Spanish was the language spoken in her home and it still is to this day, so learning in school fell in line behind simply trying to understand what was being said.

“Those first years were hard,” Judith admits. “We spoke Spanish at home and then I had a babysitter and I spoke Spanish. I didn’t have a lot of friends and my mom couldn’t help me so, yeah, it was really hard.”

The one thing about Judith though is that she always smiled. That’s what Gilbert Elementary Principal Staci Edwards remembers the most about Judith’s time in her building.

“She was always sweet and always happy,” Edwards says. “She was quiet because communication wasn’t easy for her, but she was a kiddo you wanted in your room.”

By the second grade, Judith says she had learned enough English to be able to get her point across in class. It was in the third grade that Judith was able to read English by herself after extensive help from then district English Language Learner coordinator Jill Moore, and her educational trajectory only rose higher and higher as the years went on.

The determination she shows in the classroom is a big reason why she now finds herself on a path toward college. Things might not always click for her as quickly as other students, but she never backs down from a challenge and that’s paid dividends.

“I’ve worked with Judith for five years and she really works hard for what she gets, and you can tell she’s proud of it,” Lisa Burianek, the current Gilbert District ELL Coordinator, says. “She works really well in groups and on her own, and she’s really good about asking questions and advocating for herself.”

As recently as a year ago, college really wasn’t on Judith’s radar. But as a junior, she learned how to apply for scholarships and to colleges, and her interest was peaked. She eventually applied to Iowa State, and when she received her acceptance letter she knew all of the effort was worth it.

“Judith is an example of a hard-working, friendly student for everybody,” Gilbert High School Principal Cindy Bassett says. “The fact that she’s the first person in her family to go to college and breaking barriers is amazing. She’s a model student for anybody.”

Judith is unsure of what she wants to study in college. This past summer, she took classes to become a certified interpreter and that’s a possibility for her future. She also enjoys working with kids and she says — who knows? — teaching may be what she gravitates toward.

Becoming an interpreter takes on a special meaning for Judith. Her parents, Antonia and Carlos, migrated from Puebla, Mexico, to central Iowa more than 20 years ago to better their lives and the lives of their children, and a few years later Judith came along. She sees how hard her parents work to give her a better life, and she knows it has come with a price. Antonia and Carlos can understand some English, but they aren’t fluent. And so she’s taken on the role of interpreting when her parents are in certain settings, such as at the doctor’s office. She’d like to do that for other non-English speakers as well.

“I want to help others who are in situations like my family,” she says. “My mom will go to the doctor and I interpret … sometimes they say something and she’ll say, ‘Yeah, I understand,’ but then she’ll have no clue what was said.”

Judith’s parents weren’t afforded the same opportunities she’s had at Gilbert. She says neither of her parents reached high school when they were kids in Mexico; they were forced to work at an early age to try to help provide for their families.

Judith knows her parents are proud of her for what she’s accomplished and what she’ll continue to accomplish in the future. She would like them to know the feeling is mutual.

“I’m very thankful,” she says. “I know my dad works really hard and I’m just so thankful they came here for me to have a better future. We don’t have to struggle like they did.

“They’re very, very excited for me, and they’re happy and proud. They say things like, ‘Wow, we raised her!’ It’s pretty neat.”

It’s the American Dream. Judith has seen it. She’s lived it. And she’ll continue to enjoy it on campus in Ames next fall.

 

Moving Forward: A Place Where Everyone Belongs

Ben Melody doesn’t know it yet as he sits at a table located just steps out the backdoor of Gilbert High School on a warm Monday afternoon in mid-September, but he’s just four days away from being named Homecoming King. His ascent to school royalty should come as a surprise to no one though. He’s smart. Articulate. A friend to anyone and everyone who needs someone in their corner. Peers gravitate to him in happy times and cling to him in times of pain.

Ben has his hands in a lot of Gilbert’s cookie jars, so to speak, but it’s a group he helped form outside of the school walls that he’s most proud of though. It puts a sparkle in his eyes and a swell in his chest. The other founding members — fellow Gilbert seniors Adelaide Searles, Weston Congdon, Dalton Nelson, and Aidan Wimmer — feel the same way, and they see Ben as their leader.

Truthfully, it’s Ben’s baby. It has been from the start.

“Oh yeah, Ben’s the leader. For sure,” one person says before the other three quickly agree when they’re all sitting together. Ben is sitting there too, and his cheeks flush with embarrassment at their agreement.

What the group has created is monumental, both in its current form and for what it will continue to be in the years to come. And while it may not be a Gilbert Schools organization, you better believe it’s for Gilbert Schools and its students in both the present and the future.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Moving Forward — an organization for students by students.

“We want to make Gilbert better for the future,” Ben says, “and to have a true impact we needed it to be completely us.”

What started as just an idea among a group of friends that now consider each other family last December has become one of the most recognizable organizations around Gilbert High School. Simply put, Ben and his peers have made teen mental health awareness and inclusivity cool inside the walls of Gilbert High School. That it’s been done so quickly is nothing short of remarkable.

Their events, six in all since the kickoff in March, have steadily drawn bigger and bigger crowds with September’s Movie Night bringing in more than 170 students — nearly a third of the high school student body — for an evening of fun and togetherness. It surpassed the previous record crowd of more than 150 students that attended a bonfire in July.

There are Facebook (Moving Forward) and Instagram (@movingforward50014) accounts with hundreds of followers. There’s a Venmo account (@MovingForward43) for anyone who would like to contribute to their cause. There are wristbands for sale in the Tiger Den. And, soon enough, there will be merch (as the kids like to say) on the streets — T-shirts and sweatshirts with the Moving Forward logo that are currently available for pre-order.

The founders would be lying if they said this is exactly what they envisioned. In reality, it’s bigger and better than they ever imagined. And it’s just getting started.

What is Moving Forward?

In its simplest form, Moving Forward is about giving a voice to every student. It’s about giving every student a place where they belong. It’s about making Gilbert Schools a better place for every student. No cliques. No exclusivity. No agenda other than to welcome every student in with arms wide open.

And it’s 100 percent student driven.

Repeat: It’s 100 percent student driven.

“I am so proud of the fact that it’s grassroots driven,” Gilbert Schools Superintendent Dr. Christine Trujillo says. “They listened to the needs of the kids and they really went the extra mile. It wasn’t about just getting kids to an event. They reached out to kids, they got to know the kids’ names, and it was about bringing kids in to say everybody belongs here.”

Dennis May and Allison Fugere are two of those students who were brought into the fold, and they quickly realized they wanted to dive right into the deep end of the pool. Both juniors at Gilbert High School, they’re official Moving Forward members and a part of the class that will take the reins of the organization a year from now.

“What Ben has created is so beautiful and he’ll never get all of the credit that he deserves,” Dennis says. “On one hand, it’s very endearing that this hasn’t gone to his head, but on the other hand, it’s frustrating to see how he steers away from all of the credit that he deserves.”

Dennis and Allison paint a picture of a Moving Forward event, and they do so with smiles on their faces. They talk about metaphorical walls coming down between students and new friendships being formed among students that likely never would have put themselves out there prior to Moving Forward.

“A lot of the coldness that people have toward each other, especially passing in the hallway, that stuff just completely melts away (after a Moving Forward event),” Dennis says. “So many people become so much friendlier than they were before.”

Dennis is a people person, always has been. As a freshman and sophomore, he went out of his way to introduce himself to other students and befriend as many as he could. At times, his persistence paid off. But too many times, he felt the sting of the cold shoulder, to the point that his bright demeanor began to dim.

Moving Forward has changed all of that, he says.

“The way I look at my fellow students has changed,” he says. “I started off high school wanting to make as many friends as possible, but by sophomore year, I realized that not everybody was going to be my friend. When Moving Forward started up, it rekindled that fire to meet new students. The dream I had in freshman year of making friends with everyone I could find is becoming more and more possible.”

Allison sees herself connecting with so many new peers too. What stands out to her at Moving Forward events is when she sees upperclassmen — juniors and seniors — going out of their way to introduce themselves to and befriend freshmen.

“It’s really nice for Dennis and I to go and talk to the younger ones because that makes them feel more seen, and I talk to them when I see them at school and in the hallways,” Allison says. “We know the teachers are there for us, but it’s so nice to see students themselves say we care about you. Students we see in the hallways every day genuinely care about us and that makes such a huge difference.”

September’s Movie Night at Gilbert High School kicked off at 5 p.m. with food and board games in the commons area. Basketball, volleyball, and bags took place in the gymnasium, and other students gravitated toward the wrestling room to play dodgeball or other games. Eventually, the event shifted to the auditorium for a screening of Top Gun: Maverick.

The key is that while groups of friends may have attended together, they splintered to interact with other groups during the event. There were no cliques. There were no groups keeping to themselves. Rather, there was a concerted effort to leave the protective bubble and venture out with the goal of meeting and bonding with new people.

The more the merrier, Moving Forward says.

“In general, we try to break up tables to try to bring everybody together as a group,” Dennis says. “It’s so cool to see friend groups that never would have talked to each other sit down and play UNO. Or to see (group) A and (group) B talk together for the first time ever … we’ve seen really beautiful friendships come with that.”

“People don’t feel so alone anymore,” Allison adds. “Even if they don’t go to events, they know they’re always welcome and they know people still care about them.”

The original five founders see these interactions and fill with pride. It’s been this way since the beginning.

“At that first event, I think Ben and I hugged at least six times because what we envisioned and what actually happened came together,” Dalton Nelson says. “This is really important to us.”

Prior to the September event, the now 15 members of Moving Forward hosted a school assembly in the high school auditorium. Nearly every member spoke about the importance of the group and how it’s there to help students in times of need.

To a person, the five founders admitted it was scary to stand in front of their peers — more than 500 of them, actually — and tell their story. But it was necessary to spread their message — one of hope, and love, and harmony, and a belief in each other — for everyone to hear.

“I’m an introvert,” Ben says, and immediately the other four original members admit they feel the same way. “If you would have asked me even eight months ago if us five would have been standing up in front of the entire school … no chance. But we had to do it to get our message out there.”

“My heart is pounding every time I talk to a new person, but we do it because we care,” Weston Congdon says. “So many friend groups talking and hanging out, it’s so cool to have so many people together at the same time.”

The all-senior founders are determined not to see the group fade into a memory once they graduate. For them, Moving Forward would be a failure if that happens, which is why they’re taking steps to teach the younger members how to lead. Ben is also putting together an action plan to keep Moving Forward, well, moving forward.

“Once we graduate, we’re passing this down,” Ben says. “It would be incredibly hypocritical if we continue leading after we’re gone because this needs to be student driven. We can’t do that when we’re not students anymore.”

Dennis and Allison know it will be daunting to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, but they also know the cause is too important to let the challenge be intimidating.

“The dream that Ben has created is absolutely beautiful,” Dennis says. “I don’t know how we can improve upon what he’s created, but I know we’re certainly going to try.”

“We’re pretty excited (about leading), but also it’s a little scary because Ben has done so much,” Allison says. “Moving Forward won’t be the same without him.”

From tragedy sprouts togetherness

It would be disingenuous to say the idea of Moving Forward came about on a whim. The truth is that it came during a time of mourning and sorrow around Gilbert Schools, a time in which Ben, Adelaide, Weston, Dalton, and Aidan said enough is enough.

The passing of classmate Nolan Clewell by suicide in early November of 2021 had a profound effect on Ben, who considered himself one of Nolan’s best friends prior to his death. It was the second such tragedy at Gilbert Schools in as many years; Class of 2022 member Henry Owen took his own life in September of 2020.

Following Nolan’s death, the Melody house became a refuge for many of the members of the Class of 2023. In the days following the tragedy, Ben estimates anywhere between 15 and 80 classmates were at his house at various times during the days.

Kids talked. Cried. Mourned. Remembered. And they did it all together.

There were games, there were laughs, and there was peace. No hidden agendas. No social circles ostracized.

Ben remembers it like this: “It was just really cool how all of the groups were mixing and playing games and we all thought, why can’t we be like this all of the time? How can we make this not stop here? How are we going to grow as a community and student body?”

Weston and Adelaide were among the students that gravitated to the Melody house in the days following Nolan’s death. At first, they were hesitant to join the group; they didn’t really know Ben and wondered if they would fit in. Soon enough though, they knew they belonged. Everyone belonged.

“Ben was scary,” Weston says with a smirk as he gives Ben a glance. “I was not friends with Ben until he invited me over to the house.”

“I was hesitant to go to Ben’s house too,” Adelaide says. “My friend invited me … I went every day and started hanging out with these guys.”

Ben, Adelaide, Weston, Dalton, and Aidan all felt like they needed to do something for their fellow students, and for their school. And in the following months, Moving Forward went from just a dream to reality.

“We wanted to get off the past and make Gilbert better for the future,” Ben says. “All of us loved Nolan and that’s why we’ve worked so hard because we miss our buddy and we don’t want anyone to go through that pain again.”

A group meeting in December led to another in January and another in February. Throughout this period, as they developed a strategy and goals for their group, they were adamant about one thing — it had to be student driven. It was a big ask of Gilbert Schools to let them grab the wheel and drive on such an important topic as teen mental health awareness, and yet the resolve in the group’s words and actions earned the trust of school administrators.

“I really understood why they felt the need to take it into their own hands,” Gilbert High School Principal Cindy Bassett says. “Because who are the strongest influencers on teenagers? It’s teenagers. We do everything we can as parents and educators, but we know during this time of their lives that our voice is just a murmur. We’re there and we’re trying as hard as we can, but we’re just kind of a dull murmur. So if it’s going to work, kids have to do it, and it was kids doing this when they were feeling their worst and most lost.”

It’s Necessary

In a survey of 7,705 high school students (grades 9-12) from January to June in 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 44 percent of those students who took part have a feeling of sadness or hopelessness every day for two consecutive weeks or more. Three influential groups — the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association — offered a similarly disturbing message in October of 2021 when they jointly declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

Gilbert Schools is not immune to this national trend, proved by the tragedies in recent years. The district is doing all it can to help students navigate through difficult times and provide them with the tools necessary to help each other. It has thrown its full support behind Moving Forward, and in 2021 it began training its students in teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA).

The now junior and senior classes went through the training in 2021, and in mid-September the current sophomore class was given the tools necessary to help one another. tMHFA was developed in response to research that shows teens prefer their peers when it comes to sharing about their challenges.

Gilbert Schools also makes other resources available to its students who may be struggling with mental health. All high school students have free access to counseling services with a licensed therapist, and students have been made aware of other avenues for help, such as the Statewide Crisis Line which provides mental health counselors who will travel for in-home visits with those that are struggling.

“All of it goes to show that’s who we are at Gilbert,” Bassett says. “We’re empowering students by saying, what do you need? We’re going to give you the tools and resources to help when you need it.”

Bassett is excited for what the future holds at Gilbert Schools, and she knows what an impact Moving Forward has had on the student body in such a short time.

“I’m so proud of them and I’m so excited for what they’ve created for Gilbert kids,” she says. “What they’re doing matters even more for every younger grade of kids. They’re building a legacy and it’s going to grow exponentially.”

Ben thinks about Nolan a lot these days, particularly during the Moving Forward events and the days leading up to them. He believes his friend would have enjoyed them. He believes his friend would have fit right in.

“We’re doing this as a way to help people like Nolan,” Ben says. “I miss Nolan every day, but our group is completely about the future and what we’re going to do about it.”

With that, Ben stands up and heads back into the high school. It’s almost time for football practice, and homework after that. Soon enough, he and his friends will begin planning their next Moving Forward event, and they’ll hope it’s even bigger than the previous get together.

It’s important to them. It’s important to the school.

It’s important to the future.

 

WELCOME TO THE BIG SHOW

The Gilbert Marching Band is a force of nature … in size and sound

With his head tilted slightly to the ground, Gilbert High School band director Byron Tinder slowly shuffles around in front of his junior and senior marching band as it plays the Iowa State fight song on a pleasant Monday morning while the sun blazes in the background.

Tinder isn’t watching his band. He’s listening to his band. Meticulously listening, actually. Soon enough, he stops the performance and speaks in an even tone into his bullhorn so that his direction is amplified across the field.

Yes, Tinder uses a bullhorn. It’s necessary with so many band members spread from 30-yard-line to 30-yard-line inside Tiger Stadium. Roughly 20 minutes later, a similar pattern materializes when his freshman and sophomore marching band is on the field.

Interestedly enough, the only time the two bands come together is during home football games in the fall. And when they do? It’s glorious.

Ten years ago, the Gilbert marching band had only 62 members — a respectable number, but not necessarily the standard for a program with such lofty expectations, its own and those of the community. Today though, the marching band is 131 strong and the envy of many similarly-sized school districts across the state. Now you also know why the two groups practice separately.

“We are a very unique band in that our marching bands don’t rehearse as a group together,” Tinder says while sitting comfortably in his massive band room early Monday morning. “The percentage of the student body in band is probably 25 percent and if they were all meeting the same period, you’d run into all kinds of gridlock in the schedule. That’s why we don’t do much movement on the marching band field. You’re going to hear us play different music every Friday night and we’re going to play it well, but we’re going to stand and play it.”

When Tinder came to Gilbert 11 years ago, he made the conscious decision to transition away from competitive marching band. It took too much time and energy from the students, and the outcome was a drastic drop in numbers. After four years under his leadership, the band went from 62 members to 129 and has consistently stayed between 125 and 140 ever since.

“I preach to parents that you can be in band and anything else,” Tinder says. “We want athletes, we want kids who are National Merit scholars, we want kids who are in choir, speech and FFA, and we want kids who hold jobs to be in band. So we’re not going to chase trophies in marching band, but that’s what’s resulted in the growth of our program in numbers. The challenge is to keep the quality of the product high along with the numbers.”

That hasn’t been a problem for the Gilbert band, which is quite apparent when you hear it play under the Friday Night Lights.

Tinder and his pupils thrive on those expectations though. They know spectators aren’t going to race to the concession stand at halftime of home football games. Rather, they’re going to sit right where they are to enjoy the band’s halftime show.

“The expectations here, it’s not just in music, it’s everything,” Tinder says. “It’s the academics, it’s the well-rounded students we produce. To teach in a district with these expectations is really fun. There’s a challenge to it, but I’d rather teach here than a place that didn’t expect great things.”

Those expectations will certainly be amplified this Friday night when, for the third time in eight years, the Gilbert marching band will welcome its Iowa State University brethren to Tiger Stadium for a joint performance. Nearly 500 band members will fill the field for pregame and halftime performances, similar to what they did at the grand opening of the stadium on Aug. 29, 2014 — a raucous occasion that culminated in a fireworks show following a 38-6 victory over Webster City — as well as four years ago on ISU’s second visit to Gilbert.

“It’s a win-win (for both bands) because there’s such a natural connection and partnership between Gilbert and Iowa State,” Tinder says. “We agreed that it works really well for both of us to do this, but it has to work with the schedule. We have to have a home game and they have to have a home game, but this gives them a chance to get a run through for their show on Saturday. Their kids can carpool up here, they can rehearse up here at our Intermediate field, they get a performance here, and then our boosters feed them.

“To have one of the really top collegiate bands in the country in our backyard is a blessing. And then for them to be so accommodating and to be so in tune with the public schools is a neat thing. The whole band department down there understands what we do and is accessible to us. It’s a year-round thing. We are always able to pick up the phone and bounce ideas off of them.”

The Gilbert marching band has been a conduit to the ISU marching band over the years. Currently, a handful of Gilbert graduates now put on the ISU uniform and two — Sura Smadi and Kyle Grossnickle — serve in leadership roles.

“Over the past few years, we’ve probably averaged six to seven (Gilbert graduates as members of the ISU band) per year, which has been really cool,” Tinder says.

As good as Gilbert’s band is, Tinder knows it will not be the featured attraction Friday night. When the Cyclones’ 300-plus members step onto the field, they’ll be in the spotlight and with good reason.

“That band is a force of nature, so we know we’re not going to drive the tempo Friday night,” Tinder says which a chuckle. “We’re just going to hang on and go with them. It’s kind of like when our middle schoolers come over and play with us. We’re going to play our tempo and they’re going to hang on for the ride.”

It can be nerve-wracking to try to play alongside a top-tier Division I college band, but that’s also what makes it exciting. And in past performances, Gilbert’s marching band has more than held its own.

Following it’s warm-up at the Intermediate School, the ISU band will parade over to Tiger Stadium at 6:45 p.m. on Friday. Soon after — at 7:15 p.m., just prior to kickoff — the show will officially begin.

You won’t want to miss it.

A HEART OF GOLD

Gilbert 6th grader Zack Langford fights for his life with a smile on his face

Zack Langford has one of those smiles that will instantly melt you. It’s more of a grin really, but it’s permanently plastered to his face. Even when the conversation moves to tough times – the scariest of times, actually – his facial expression never changes. His bright blue eyes never turn dark, his freckled face never furrows, and his immaculately styled hair never tussles.

As the Gilbert Middle School sixth grader sits on a chair at his family’s dining room table, surrounded by his parents, Troy and Amanda, younger brother, Zander, and full-of-energy shih-poo dog, Zazu, he’s not shy talking about his favorite activities since his life was turned upside down. He enjoys riding dirt bikes, fishing, drawing, and playing video games. It’s clear he’s not afraid to talk about his ailment either. He knows his story well going back to his initial symptoms in late 2018, and he’s quick to point out that during one less than pleasant trip to the hospital he was forced to give 27 vials of blood for testing purposes.

He’s been through a lot in his 11 years of life, particularly the last 3½ since his diagnosis, but he shrugs it off like most children would a poor score on a math quiz.

“It’s just kind of normal for me, it’s part of me now,” Zack says with his elbows leaning on the table. “I’ve kind of accepted it.”

 

IN THE BEGINNING

The worry in the eyes of Troy and Amanda is ever-present. How could it not be? They’ve already endured the worst kind of devastation parents can face – the loss of a child – when their first-born, a daughter named Mikayla, passed away at the age of six more than six years before Zack was born.

“Mikayla was born with two different brain abnormalities,” Amanda says. “She was only given a month to live, but lived six years. We waited 6½ years after she died to have Zack, and other than having asthma, he was a healthy kiddo.”

That all changed in December of 2018 though. Just four months after the family moved from their longtime home in Kansas City to central Iowa, Zack was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the muscles of a heart’s ventricles stiffen and are unable to fill with blood. It’s the rarest form of cardiomyopathy, and it commonly leads to progressive heart failure and the need for heart transplant.

There were no symptoms prior to the family’s move to Iowa, and doctors still can’t give an answer to the family’s No. 1 question: Why? One day, Zack was a happy and healthy second-grade boy excited to go to a friend’s birthday party. The next day, the Langford family was staring at an unknown future.

“We went to a birthday party that day, but I was tired, I had no energy, and I didn’t feel the best,” Zack remembers. “We went to Target and Hobby Lobby, and in Hobby Lobby I got dizzy, nauseous, and had blurred vision.”

After a battery of tests at numerous hospitals – including an electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram, a cardiac catheterization, and an MRI, just to name a few – the family was given Zack’s diagnosis at the University of Iowa Hospitals.

And just like that, Zack’s world changed. He had to give up things like sports and riding his bike; his little heart just couldn’t handle them.

“It was hard emotionally at first,” Troy says. “One day you’re at the kids’ party in the gymnasium, and the next day you come home and can’t do anything. No baseball, no soccer, no riding bikes, no playing with friends.”

Initially, doctors told the Langfords that Zack would likely need a heart transplant within a year to survive. But aided by medication, his condition stabilized in the early months, something that is not normal in cases such as Zack’s.

“We were fortunate that we caught it,” Troy says. “Usually (at diagnosis, a patient) is in the hospital waiting for a transplant and they stay in the hospital waiting for a transplant.”

Eventually though, the disease took a toll. In March of 2021, Zack was placed onto the heart transplant list at the University of Iowa, and a year later, in March of this year, he was also placed on the transplant list at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

“Zack is the only child that has been dual-listed at Kansas City with another hospital,” Amanda says. “The fact that Children’s Mercy agreed to take on Zack was a blessing in itself.”

Even in these times of turmoil, Zack remains upbeat. He attends classes at Gilbert Middle School on a daily basis, and his positive outlook has an infectious quality to it that inspires everyone.

“Zack’s always upbeat and positive when he has every reason in the world to be upset,” Gilbert Middle School Principal Mike Danilson says. “His positive demeanor and outlook bring people together. It’s hard not to instantly like him and root for him.”

So now Zack, Amanda, Troy, Zander, and Zazu wait and hope. They wait for that call, which could come in at any moment, day or night, and they hope – and hope and hope – that Zack’s other organs aren’t taxed to the point that a transplant won’t be possible. Zack has had what he calls his “bug out bag” packed for a long time, and each night the family members go to bed wondering if a ring of the phone will jar them awake and change their lives yet again.

“At any moment, we could go,” Amanda says.

THE FINANCIAL BURDEN

Amanda and Troy are both originally from the Kansas City area. It’s where their primary support system still resides. And so they’ve asked themselves the question many times: Why aren’t we back there now?

“The biggest reason we haven’t moved is Gilbert Schools,” Troy says. “We were planning on moving back to Kansas City because that’s where a lot of our support is, and you want to be around family and friends. But the kids really liked the school here and made friends, and the school has been great. So we’ve changed our plans to keep the kids here in school.”

The financial burden caused by any medical crisis is immense, but a condition like Zack’s is extraordinary. All of the time off work to shuttle him to appointments in Iowa City and Kansas City, the myriad medications, the tests, the everything – it all adds up quickly.

“Nothing is cheap about being sick,” Troy says. “You try to save, but it goes out faster than it comes in.”

The Langford family recently began working with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) in an effort to fundraise to help cover Zack’s medical expenses. As of Wednesday morning, the family had raised $7,758 with a goal of raising $75,000.

COTA is the nation’s only fundraising organization solely dedicated to raising life-saving dollars to support transplant-ready children and young adults. Every penny in donation made to COTA in honor of a patient goes to pay transplant-related expenses.

To support Zack and the Langford family with a tax-deductible donation, you can visit his COTA website: COTAforHeartWarriorZack.com. Under the EVENTS tab on the website, you can also purchase a HEART WARRIOR ZACK wristband, the same wristband that loosely hangs on Zack’s right arm each day.

There is also a fundraising site – heartwarriorzack.itemorder.com – where T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats can be ordered, all emblazoned with the Zack Heart Warrior logo that he originally drew himself before he handed it off to a friend to put the finishing touches on. Again, all of the funds raised from the sale of the merchandise will go toward Zack’s medical expenses.

Zack is excited about the possibility of a new heart. Not only will he get to wear what he calls “the cool pajamas” in the hospital, if all goes well he’ll eventually return to normal activities.

He’ll be able to run again. He’ll be able to play some sports again. 

He’ll be able to be a kid again.

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Gilbert Community School District

Gilbert Community School District

103 Mathews Drive, Gilbert, Iowa 50105  |  (515) 232-3740