Scholarship honors special person who touched the hearts of many

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The Kristi Wilder "Are You My Friend" Endowed Scholarship and Fellowship Fund has become one of Florida's largest special education endowments primarily because of the number of lives touched by an individual who was given virtually no chance to live when she was born.

Kristi's aunt and uncle, Becky and Steve Worthington, suggested setting up a scholarship in Kristi's memory. Kristi's parents, Kenny and Donna Wilder of Fernandina Beach, and her aunt, Susie Keen of Jacksonville, contacted UNF. They pledged to raise $25,000 over five years. They met that goal three years early due to the outpouring of community support. To date, the fund has received nearly $100,000.

Kenny Wilder is a modest man who views the success of the scholarship as one more indication that the partnership with UNF was "God made."

When Kristi was born, Wilder said doctors told him and his wife their daughter had extensive mental and physical disabilities and was unlikely to live without extensive surgery. If she did survive the surgery, they said she would be blind and deaf and would probably die within five years. "I got down on my knees and prayed that God would give her sight or hearing, just one and we would do the rest."

To the amazement of doctors, Kristi survived and eventually was able to see and hear. She didn't start talking until she was 4 years old, but when she started, she never stopped, Wilder said. But the truly amazing aspect of the experience Wilder recalled was not that Kristi survived, but the lessons she taught everyone about unconditional love. "Kristi would cry when she would have to get stuck with a needle, but then turn around and give the nurse a big hug and ask her 'are you my friend?' "

Wilder said he never dreamed the community would be so generous. Raising money for the scholarship has become an event in itself with family and friends doing everything. When it was decided a fish fry would be this year's fundraiser, the family spent their vacation on Florida's west coast catching more than 1,000 pounds of seafood for the dinner. They didn't charge for the dinner, allowing people to make donations as they saw fit. Dr. Larry Daniel, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, said the annual fundraiser has become a "wonderful experience that brings together the entire community. This is much more than just a scholarship. This has become a true friendship."

Dr. Len Roberson, chair of UNF's Exceptional Student and Deaf Education Program, said the endowment would allow the next generation of teachers to touch the lives of special needs students and for those students to touch the lives of others. The newest scholarship recipient, Daryl Everett, said the Wilder scholarship is allowing her to focus on her studies without having to worry about working excessive hours to pay for her education. "Because of Kristi, I will be able to teach special needs students who can't hear," she said.

And if the special education teachers of the future are lucky, they too will encounter a student like Kristi. Patrick Nolan, one of Kristi's teachers at Alden Road Exceptional Student Center in Jacksonville, recalls lessons he learned. "Kristi was non-discriminating in her love. She didn't pick and chose her friends. She loved everyone and everyone loved her."