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Ledyard High senior turns adversity into strength

For McKayla Finkelstein, sophomore year was "certainly a growing year."

Her family moved from Ledyard to East Lyme when her father was named the new police chief there, and she joined the agri-science program at Ledyard High School so she could finish her high school career with her friends. The family welcomed a new baby and she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease.

But she said the many obstacles that came her way, along with her longstanding involvement in chorus and sports, have all shaped her high school experience.

"You can do it all, and that can make you who you are — in my case, music, ag and sports. And you can do all that even during your hardest times; living with Crohn's on top of it wasn't easy, but I was able to accomplish a lot," she said. "I took my Crohn's as a weakness and turned it into a strength, as it made me stronger as a person and showed me my true path in life and what I was meant to do."

Finkelstein will attend Southern Connecticut State University's nursing program in the fall, and she said she hopes to work with children and young adults.

"Prior to my diagnosis, I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life," she said. "I look back and I can see that 15-year-old girl sitting on the hospital bed, unaware her life is about to change, and I can't think of anything else than to help other people who are in that same boat."

A multi-sport athlete, Finkelstein's fall and spring sports seasons were both derailed, with a broken finger that sidelined her for most of volleyball and the coronavirus pandemic canceling the spring season. Having already switched from basketball to indoor track her junior year, she said she had been planning on switching from softball to outdoor track this year because she loved it so much.

"High school is one of the most stressful times in your life, and sports was that place where I could let go of everything and I could forget about everything. The court and the field felt like a second home to me in a way," she said. She also said that it helped her organization and time management skills.

Marin Marciano, an art teacher at Ledyard who coaches the varsity volleyball team, said Finkelstein was a passionate "super teammate," even when she couldn't play.

"She is such a hard worker and enjoys the sport so much, so she was really looking forward to being on the court and leading her team that way, but she really proved to be such a leader off the court," she said.

Marciano said Finkelstein went to every practice while she was injured, setting an example for younger players, and her performance during their senior night game showed how much she had learned and missed the game.

Chorus teacher Melanie Cometa also noted Finkelstein's leadership in several choral groups; this year she sang in Chorale, Concert Choir, Select Singers and Acabellas. She said it's an easy choice to partner a new or struggling student with Finkelstein because she's warm and helpful, and in the age of virtual instruction, she's always the first to log into class.

"Pops is really where McKayla shines," she said, referring to Ledyard's annual spring Pops concert. "She's a great dancer. We love to put her right in the front because she is a showman. Her smile is infectious and her smile gets everyone going and her dance moves are great."

"It brings me so many smiles because singing is one thing, but I love dancing," Finkelstein said, noting that she helped choreograph some of the dances. "I don't do it often, but when we get to incorporate it with the music, it's even more powerful."

While joining the agri-science program was initially a way for her to stay in Ledyard, she said it turned into one of her favorite classes. She specialized in horticulture and floriculture, and while she doesn't have the materials at home for arrangements, she brought some of her skills home in the form of a vegetable garden.

"When I think back at it, I think that I'll have a garden the rest of my life. It's a hobby I love and has taught me a lot of life skills," she said. "It's kind of taught me in a way how to provide more for yourself rather than going to the grocery store."

Finkelstein said it was a huge disappointment seeing things she was looking forward to as a senior being canceled because of the pandemic, but she's been trying to keep it positive.

"The biggest thing I've taken from this is that life can change at any moment. It's kind of a lesson I already learned, but I think everyone is starting to see it more with clear eyes," she said. "Rather than focusing on the little time we got taken away, I'm trying to remember all the great memories and the huge time that I had together with all my friends and fellow seniors."

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