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When Jody Stretch talks about her daughter Katelyn, her words paint a portrait of a young woman who was profoundly, immeasurably kind — the sort of person who lent a supportive ear to anyone who needed it, who cherished her relationships with those around her and whose heart always had room available for one more friend.
“She was almost like a little social worker,” Jody said. “She was always helping people, helping everyone out. She loved her family deeply, and we knew it, and she knew we felt the same about her.”
Katelyn Brianne Stretch, a 15-year-old sophomore at Lincoln-Way East, died unexpectedly Nov. 18. Her family says she died by suicide.
The sudden loss has been incredibly difficult for Jody, a nurse at an Olympia Fields hospital; Katelyn’s father, Brian, a truck driver for PFA Systems in Rockdale; and Katelyn’s 18-year-old sister Jenna, a Lincoln-Way East senior.
Jody said she is thankful for all of the prayers and support that she, Brian and Jenna have received from the Frankfort community, a place they have called home for nearly 16 years. They are grateful for the many family members, friends, other parents, friends of Katelyn, school staff members and teachers from throughout Katelyn’s life who have reached out to them and offered much-needed words and gestures of comfort.
Additionally, Jody said, she wishes to give heartfelt thanks to members of the Frankfort Fire Protection District, Will County Sheriff’s Office and the Olympia Fields hospital emergency room team for their hard work at a challenging time.
“They did an outstanding, wonderful job,” she said.
Katelyn grew up in Frankfort and attended several schools in Summit Hill School District 161, including Dr. Julian Rogus School, Frankfort Square School, Hilda Walker School and Summit Hill Junior High School. At Lincoln-Way East, she was a member of the school’s Best Buddies program, which partners students with peers with developmental and intellectual disabilities, encouraging them to develop meaningful one-on-one friendships.
Her family remembers how Katelyn loved going to the beach when it was warm outside and exploring Walt Disney World and Universal Studios on family trips. How she loved riding on her father’s Harley. How she and her sister spent countless hours together at the mall and “jamming out” in the car. How she jumped at every Christmas, every birthday and every Thanksgiving as an opportunity to give to others and show appreciation for the loved ones in her life.
It would be impossible for Jody to choose a favorite memory of Katelyn from the thousands upon thousands of moments she and her daughter shared in the decade and a half they had together. All of them were special.
“My favorite memory was every day, basically,” she said.
A friend to all
Katelyn’s friends and classmates at Lincoln-Way East describe her as bright and thoughtful, always willing to take that extra step to make sure her peers felt supported and encouraged.
Lincoln-Way East sophomore Becca Silvia first met Katelyn when the two girls were sixth-graders at Hilda Walker. They began eating together during their shared lunch period and quickly developed a friendship that would last for the next four years.
“We just sat by each other and started talking, and then we became really close, really fast,” she said.
Silvia smiles when she looks back on all the fun times she and Katelyn had together, — “there are so many good ones,” she said — and one of the first memories that comes to mind is of Silvia’s 13th birthday party at Great Wolf Lodge.
“We just did a lot of stupid stuff, like we Naruto ran down the halls, and just ran around the park,” she said, laughing. “And we got yelled at a lot by all the workers, but it was a lot of fun.”
Fellow East sophomore Maddie Principato says Katelyn was one of her best friends.
“She was so bubbly and so happy, and just so out there,” she said. “She was family to me. She was just like a sister. We used to call her ‘Chicken Strip.’ I’m not quite sure how it came up in conversation, but it just kind of popped up and it stuck. It’s one of those nicknames that you can’t get away from no matter how hard you try. And she loved it, we all loved it. And this bond, it was unable to be broken, because we were all so close.”
What stood out about Katelyn was the way she treated others, Principato said.
“She made everyone feel OK,” she said. “She never had anything against anybody. She couldn’t hold a grudge.”
Seeking a way forward
Losing Katelyn left the Stretch family with more questions than answers.
The family later discovered through Katelyn’s writing that she had struggled with depression since she was in eighth grade. She had never told them.
“The biggest thing I don’t understand is why,” Jody Stretch said. “Why not tell somebody, especially me? Because I’m her mother, I’m a nurse. I understand. Anything. I would have worked through it with her.”
In the weeks, months and years ahead, the family plans to honor Katelyn’s memory by raising awareness of suicide prevention and depression. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education, research, advocacy for mental health and suicide prevention and support for those affected by suicide.
The Crisis Line of Will and Grundy Counties offers a hotline available 24/7 for individuals who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide. The Frankfort line can be reached at (815) 469-6166.
In October, Lincoln-Way East gave students a presentation on suicide awareness as part of a district-wide initiative recognizing National Bullying Month. Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 spokeswoman Jen Hannon told The Station in a Nov. 20 email that increased support staff was made available to students at the school in the days after Katelyn died.
Jody wants to send a message about how important it is for teens to talk to someone they trust: a parent, a counselor, a sibling, a friend. To speak up, to say something.
“The answer was her telling somebody, ‘I am feeling depressed,’” Jody said. “Because this was going on for so long.”
She takes comfort in knowing that her daughter has made a difference in one very meaningful way: She was an organ donor. Her hope is that Katelyn’s story, just like Katelyn, will continue to help others in myriad ways.
Katelyn touched the lives of everyone who knew her, Jody said. That doesn’t have to change.