An uncommon bond
Editor's note: This story appeared in the Red Wing Republican Eagle on June 2. Hatte Kingston is the daughter of Darin Kingston of Alexandria and Linda Kingston of Red Wing, and the granddaughter of Don and Marilyn Kingston and Duane and Lois Braun, all of Alexandria.
When 6th grader Hatte Kingston looks up at Jack Strusz, a huge smile stretches across her face. She isn't looking at his athletic ability or his popularity - she sees someone who treats her as an equal.
Strusz, a standout senior athlete at Red Wing, met Kingston when she was a student in his mother's elementary school class and the friendship that developed is extraordinary.
Kingston was born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which she has 47 chromosomes instead of 46, and the extra chromosome hindered the development of her body and brain.
Hatte's mother, Linda Kingston, worried how Hatte would be treated when the Kingstons moved to Red Wing in 2007.
But Linda said the Strusz family, and Jack in particular, changed Hatte's life.
"I think Hatte would be significantly less happy without that family in her life," Linda said. "[Jack] is wonderful."
Jack met Hatte two years ago because his mother, Angie Strusz, works as a special education teacher at Burnside Elementary School. When he visited his mom, Jack talked with all the students but he developed a special bond with Hatte and invested in her from the beginning.
"[Athletes] are the ones everybody looks to as role models," Linda said. "To see him be that role model, that shows the community how important it is to just be a nice person is so important."
Last fall, Jack chose to become a teacher's assistant in Hatte's 6th grade classroom.
"It was something different," Jack said. "Everyone else was taking normal classes or gym classes. I just decided it would be cool to do a special education class."
He took a break from the classroom during hockey season but he was right back with Hatte in the spring. Jack provided social interaction for Hatte and he looked forward to seeing her smiling face.
GROWING UP AROUND DISABILITIES
Jack's uncle, Leo, plays a big role in the way the Strusz family treats others. Jack said Leo is unable to read and was held back in school, but he created a perfect example for Jack as a kid.
Being introduced to someone with special needs at a young age shaped Jack's view of how people should be treated: Every person deserves the same respect, no exceptions.
"I always had a soft spot for special needs kids," Jack said. "I'd always talk with them. I've always been able to socialize with them and able to treat them as any other person. My uncle had a big part in it."
Linda said she saw immediately the caring way in which Jack treated her daughter and how he influenced other kids in Red Wing.
"He didn't treat her differently," Linda said. "At the same time, he took her under his wing."
During Red Wing volleyball matches in the fall, Jack and the other fans would dress up, often wearing their football jerseys. They created cheers and motions but during one particular match Hatte attended, Jack convinced all of the guys to start chanting for Hatte.
And he didn't stop there.
Jack asked Hatte to come sit with all the high school kids. It was a decision Linda said she could hardly believe.
"They were so sweet to her," she said. "They let her participate in the crazy cheers. They treated her with respect and dignity and had a lot of fun with her. You don't see that a lot in other places. It was so heartwarming for me. It kind of choked me up."
Then, during a football game in the fall, Jack, a wide receiver for the Wingers, was coming out from halftime and sought out Hatte on the sideline. He stopped, knelt down and gave her a hug.
When the fans rushed the field after a win, one of the seniors brought Hatte along while they cheered and celebrated. Another time, senior Alex Phernetton gave Hatte the school flag and asked her to run along the sidelines to support the team.
Each moment showed the amazing character of the senior class, Linda said.
"It's been wonderful and Jack was kind of the spark of all of it," she said. "Everybody now knows her because of Jack. They look out for her. I don't think that would happen if Jack wouldn't have been in her life and acclimated her to those kids.
"I think it models for everybody in the community; to peers and adults," she added. "People like Hatte, yes they're different than us, but they're just as important as anyone in the community."
Despite the high praise from Hatte's mother and others, Jack remains grounded. Hatte deserves the same treatment as the rest of his friends, he said.
Jack is a top athlete for the Wingers in three sports and his talent spurred Hatte to invest in her own athletic abilities.
She is now fully involved in the Special Olympics. She bowls in the fall, swims in the winter and runs track in the spring. When she won two blue ribbons earlier this year, she immediately wanted to show Jack, Linda said.
Jack plays football, hockey and baseball for Red Wing and Hatte showed up to cheer him on in every season.
After a baseball game, Hatte and Jack raced around the bases while a group of Red Wing students cheered them on.
Hatte won, of course.
THE NEXT STEP
Jack and Hatte's daily time together is coming to a close. Jack said he will do his best to keep in touch with Hatte, whether he's at Minnesota State University, Mankato or with the Bismarck Bobcats. Although he wishes he could still be around to brighten Hatte's day, he has faith that Red Wing will continue to accept his "little sister."
"It's obviously kind of sad," Jack said. "You see them around and you're always kind of looking out for them. You always want to be around to make her day or night."
Linda said she isn't worried. Jack will still impact Hatte's life even when he's away and he can continue to influence others during his next step in life.
"When he comes back, I know he's going to take time and say hi to her," Linda said. "That's just ingrained in who he is now. It's not just Hatte that benefits from that, it's everybody he meets."