JOBS for AMERICA'S GRADUATES

Montana JAG in the Big Apple

Few people ever receive a standing ovation. Culbertson High School senior Elizabeth Hendrickson received two when she was on stage at the SeriousFun Children’s Network Gala in New York City on April 2.

There were seven students invited to perform at the SeriousFun Children’s Network Gala and Elizabeth was one of them.  The benefit was attended by Tony Bennett, Sara Bareilles, Robin Roberts, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Miss America and New York Amanda Mason. 

Hendrickson has always had a love for music. She commented that, “You don’t even have to put words in the song to explain an emotion, or portray a story. That’s why I like music. I can put myself into the song.”  “It was unreal. It didn’t really feel like reality,” she said. “It didn’t really hit me that I was performing in New York, performing on stage until I was on stage singing.”

Elizabeth sang “Anyway” by Martina McBride and after her performance and the praise from the crowd she went backstage and found even more accolades. As renowned Grammy and Emmy Award winner Tony Bennett was about to take the stage and, his attention quickly focused on the previous act. He began clapping and pointed right at Hendrickson. “I’m like, ‘who is he applauding,’ and he points and looks right at me and gives me two thumbs up,” Hendrickson said. “It felt like a dream.”

The other six individuals who performed the same night as Hendrickson hale from all over the country. And they share a common vein…hardship. They have all had to overcome early-life diseases or disorders. Elizabeth Hendrickson was diagnosed with ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency disorder when at the tender age of 5.

For Wayne and Penny, her parents, hearing the news wasn’t something they could have ever been ready for. “You do everything you can to protect her, and some things you couldn’t do. As a parent, it just eats at you,” Wayne said. Heading home after a family gathering in Helena, 5-year-old Elizabeth didn’t seem to be her usual self, and things got worse from there. In time, Elizabeth was flown to Denver, Colo., where she was diagnosed within 24 hours of her arrival.

Although the diagnosis wasn’t terminal, the family began an aggressive treatment with multiple medications and a strict diet routine that limited Elizabeth’s protein intake almost completely. She had to have special foods.  “It wasn’t fun treating it. They had awful medications. We had to basically mix it and shoot it down her throat,” Penny said.

Treating the illness was trial and error.  When Elizabeth’s ammonia concentration levels were rapidly increasing something more drastic needed to be done in order to prevent additional conditions like extreme lethargy, coma or even death. After numerous trips to Denver, one of the final visits a liver transplant was discussed and with the urgency of Elizabeth’s health, her name was at the top of the waiting list. “When it was transplant time, if I could have taken the pain away, I would have in a second,” Wayne said. Elizabeth did receive the transplant and spent the next four months in the hospital. She went home Thanksgiving day.

After the transplant, Elizabeth received information on a summer camp. In the beginning, the incoming mail was of interest but put in a pile and forgotten. The Hendrickson’s didn’t realize that she was being offered summer camp with no cost. Elizabeth ended up attending a camp at Roundup River Ranch in Eagle, Colorado, where she participated in all kinds of activities like horseback riding, archery, music and theater. At camp Elizabeth felt like a kid again, something she hadn’t felt since her diagnosis.  She said, “You just treated each other like normal kids.” There wasn’t talk about ill health or transplants.

Elizabeth was chosen as the representative of Roundup River Ranch who would be sent to New York to perform. News of her musical talent spread quickly to New York even before she went to try out for the SeriousFun Gala.  The organizers of organization were excited to have her as a musical guest at the gala.

“It’s kind of just an escape I guess. It’s hard to put into words,” Elizabeth explained, and she reiterated one of her favorite quotes. “Music is a language of its own…And I mean it really is. You don’t even have to put words in the song to explain an emotion, or portray a story. That’s why I like music. I can put myself into the song. And that certain song can express every single emotion I’m feeling. Just with one song that lasts maybe three minutes. It’s an escape if I’m sad, happy or angry. You can get all that emotion out through just singing one song.”

She was a state winner in last year’s Jobs for Montana Graduates competition, and she is working on an additional speech about what JMG has done for her. Her future plans are to teach music and show kids how important the arts are.