What is friendship?
For two people from very different walks of life – one a little girl from Neenah and the other a football player from southern Mississippi – formed a special bond in a single meeting.
“That was great fun. It has been great fun in many ways,” Jennifer Walentowski said with a softness in her voice. “In recent years she’s had a little more challenge, some slowing down of things.”
The first few years of Anna Walentowski’s life were filled with uncertainty and concern. At the age of six she was diagnosed with Alexander’s disease, a rare and incurable brain disorder that affects the cognitive process and stunts growth.
“I think emotionally and mentally as a family I think there’s a slow acceptance, there’s acceptance at each stage or there is recognizing at each stage that ‘oh yeah, that’s really what’s going on,’” her mother continued with Anna by her side. “I think in the early stages there was probably a fair amount of denial.”
Her parents Jeff and Jennifer struggled to keep pace with their lives in a dance of joy and sorrow as the rhythm constantly swayed.
“That first year she was in the hospital 19 times between emergency and in-patient visits to figure out various things,” said Jennifer. “We really just kept managing life, she got some physical therapy, she had early intervention services, and growth motor skills were things that we worked on and tried to have fun with.”
They coped and tried to stay positive as Anna was granted a wish through the regional charity group Make-A-Wish Wisconsin. Anna’s interests varied but one thing remained constant, the young girl was captivated by a certain Green Bay quarterback.
“I wasn’t necessarily a huge fan of the Packers or Brett at the time,” Jeff admitted. “But whenever I’d have the game on for some reason – this is even before she got sick – she was always really interested in ‘where’s Brett Favre? where is he?”
But even as they scheduled the meeting with Favre and the Packers, joy or excited was simply outweighed by the reality of their situation.
“A few weeks prior to a wish a friend asked if there was anything else that I could do to help,” Jennifer recalled, emotionally looking back. “And I asked if she would check out the funeral homes so that I would know what to do if we didn’t come back from the hospital and have her with us. And that is eleven years ago.”
The meeting was perfect and the connection was instantaneous.
“He seemed very genuine, very humble and he seemed very focused on Anna and really just enjoyed interacting with her,” Jeff said. “They did quite a bit together, they played catch a little bit.”
Their introduction wasn’t highly publicized but the few pictures that were taken show a special and real link. These images are cherished both in their minds and on the prints.
“What it did for us, it gave us joy – some joy and some light. Something exciting to talk about share with our family and friends and then it still comes up,” Jennifer said with a smile. “I think that’s really been part of walking through some of the tough stuff, is hanging onto the light.”
Favre encouraged them but it was Anna that influenced him to an extent nobody could have imagined. Three years later it was the sick little girl that was comforting her friend as Favre received a national award for his contributions to the Make-A-Wish foundation.
“I’m trying to not get choked up,” Favre said – looking down with tears welling in his eyes.
The Packers quarterback has granted over 60 wishes – as well as making significant contributions through his Farve4Hope Foundation to the communities in Wisconsin and Mississippi. It was Anna that was by his side and was there to give the tough gunslinger a hug when he needed it most.
“I think that’s the biggest word that I’ve encountered over the years is how people are inspired by her and I think seeing us just walk through life,” glowing with pride, Jennifer said. “We just keep going, which is one of the big things we find inspiring about Brett too.
So what is friendship but a life changing bond.
“Oh. What do you think. Who’s tougher, you or Brett?” Jennifer asked Anna. With no hesitation, she responded as well as she could, “Me.”