A tragedy turned into a triumph: Two families unite after an unimaginable loss

12-year-old Kristin Burkholder died after being hit by a car in 1997.
Published: Aug. 17, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
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DULUTH, MN. (KBJR) - Over the past two decades, two families have been coming together for a sole purpose following an unimaginable tragedy. Between the power of community, education, and organ donation, a loss became a gain.

On April 21, 1997, the Esko community was rocked when 12-year-old Kristin Burkholder was hit by a car on her way to track practice. Three days later she died.

“My theory is that God has a plan for us and there was a plan for Kristin. Her life was cut short, but her life gave life,” said Kevin Burkholder.

Kristin’s family described her as an athlete with an adventurous kind-hearted spirit with a love for the outdoors. Her goal was to be a teacher, hoping to inspire others along the way.

“When Kristin was in the hospital and the emergency room, I told the doctor I said, ‘do whatever you have to do. If she doesn’t make it, we want to donate her organs,’” said Burkholder.

While one life was lost, another life was given.

At just two months old, Tessa Hertel was diagnosed with Biliary Atresia. A condition compromising the functionality of her liver and potentially her life. She urgently needed a transplant.

Tessa and her family waited a year before receiving the lifesaving donation from Kristin, but a new liver wasn’t the only thing she got that day.

“The relationship that we have with Kevin’s family is really special. They’re our family. His daughter saved my life,” said Tessa Hertel.

“You lose something, but you gain something. We’re very pleased that Tessa was the recipient. We couldn’t ask for a better person. She’s just an amazing gal and we love her,” said Burkholder.

According to Donate Life America, every day, on average, 17 people die due to their need for an organ transplant and more than 100,000 people are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants. To put that in perspective, not even the largest football stadium in the U.S. could contain the number of patients on the national transplant waiting list.

“I want everyone just to know that organ donation works and that you can save a life,” said Hertel.

“It’s one of those things you can’t take your organs to heaven so please give them to someone here on earth,” said Burkholder.

25 years later, the place where Kristin’s life ended is now the starting line, where the Esko community gathers every year for an annual 5-K in Kristin’s honor, all to keep her memory running.

“I see people here that have been to all 25 races, well COVID got one, but it’s a really good solid community that comes together and helps and knows that it’s going for a good cause,” said Burkholder.

Money raised from the 5-K is helping carry out Kristin’s dream of inspiring students and future teachers as they pursue their dreams too.

“She didn’t get to become a teacher in real life, but in a way, she’s still teaching through her spirit and through the promotion of the race and what that’s all about raising scholarship funds for students that wanted to become teachers like she wanted to be,” said Drew Burkholder.

For 26-year-old Tessa, she strives to put Kristin’s legacy on full display as she carries a piece of Kristin with her.

“I share a lot of the same characteristics as Kristin does, but I feel that she lives within me and I can shine for her. I’m going to be a S.P.E.D. teacher and I love the outdoors as Kristin loved the outdoors, butterflies were her favorite, they’re my favorite. It’s just we have so many connections I know Kristin is always with me,” said Hertel.

Despite the waves of setbacks along the way, today, Tessa is healthy. Her journey has taught her not to take anything for granted. She is focused on living life to the fullest every day, just as Kristin would.

“When I turned 21 there was one thing I wanted to get on my license and that was a little red heart to say that I can be a donor. They can’t do my organs, but they can do my skin and my eyes and I just want them to take whatever they need to save someone else’s life,” said Hertel.

Whether on the racecourse or in the classroom, Kristin’s legacy is a lesson that keeps on teaching.

Tessa will be completing her student teaching and hopes to graduate this fall to eventually become a K-12 special education teacher.

If you would like to make an impact and donate to the education scholarship fund, you can click here.

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