BAYSIDE — Eighth-grade graduates Izabella (Izzy) Gamarra and Grace McKenna have gone through life side-by-side, and their journey together isn’t over.
The pair became friends in kindergarten at Sacred Heart Catholic Academy in Bayside and have been inseparable ever since — especially after Izzy was diagnosed with a golf ball-sized brain tumor, at age 7, before starting second grade.
When Izzy returned to school months later following surgery, then third-grader Grace began helping her best friend without ever being asked.
Izzy progressively lost some of her vision over the next few years and is now considered legally blind. She said it’s sometimes hard for her to get around without someone by her side.
“Grace helps a lot with things like navigating,” Izzy explained. “I usually walk with her — I’ll hold onto her [and] she’ll hold onto me.”
“If I can’t see something, she’ll read it to me or will figure out how to help,” she continued. “And sometimes people aren’t always willing to do that in public.”
“We’ve been friends for a while, so I can kind of see when she’s struggling most of the time,” Grace said, then looked at Izzy and added: “And when I don’t, you always tell me, which I really like.”
Izzy’s and Grace’s mothers Danielle and Peggy, respectively, have enjoyed watching their children grow up together.
“She just pushed through,” Danielle said in reference to her daughter Izzy and the diagnosis. “Izzy’s personality is just like, ‘I can’t be fazed by any of this.’ ”
“We just took that, ran with it, and acted the same way,” she added.
Grace’s mom Peggy noted how “organic and natural” the girls’ friendship has been over the last nine years. “It’s really effortless on their part,” Peggy said. “We don’t coach them, we don’t tell them how to act with each other.”
She added, “It’s just a beautiful thing that has just developed over the years and I credit the school for encouraging it.”
And Izzy’s diagnosis hasn’t stopped the two from taking on new adventures outside the classroom. Their families have been living in the same two-family house for the past two years, further strengthening their relationships.
“We started walking to school together and we’d leave together,” Izzy explained. “After school, we’d hang out — we still do — and we kind of just do everything together.”
“Now you’re playing basketball in the backyard; you were going kayaking last summer,” Grace said as she sat beside Izzy. “I told you about ziplining and you want to go ziplining. You’re like, ‘Nothing’s really stopping me.’ ”
Earlier this year, when Sacred Heart employee and alumna Jeanine Rana noticed how inseparable the girls were and learned of their story, she was inspired to pay it forward.
“One of the most important things that I took with me when I left Sacred Heart was my friendships,” Rana said. “That struck a nerve when I saw the two of them.”
“It reminded me, right away, of the friendships I made,” she continued, “because my best friend came from my relationship here and we’re still as close as ever.”
In a group chat with more than 20 of her childhood friends from the Class of 1983, Rana shared Izzy and Grace’s story. She asked if anybody wanted to donate money to buy them gift cards to mark the end of their final year.
But, when she received $2,000 from them in less than two hours, Rana knew the funds could be used for so much more.
“I didn’t expect them (the donors) to be so generous,” Rana said. “It went from almost just giving them a gift card to, ‘Listen, we have $1,000, each for them — let’s donate it towards their education because they’re continuing together at Holy Cross [High School].’ ”
After speaking with Sacred Heart Principal Alexandra Conlan, Rana helped set up the donations as scholarships that could help pay for future high school tuition.
Upon hearing that news, mom Danielle was nearly speechless. “You can’t put into words moments like that, especially at a time like this,” she said. “You’re like ‘Wow, there’s really still good in the world, there are still people that do things genuinely from the heart.’”
“I think people forget about stuff like that or think that it doesn’t really exist so much anymore,” Danielle added, “but it does, and there are good people out there.”
The girls had no idea they would get a special shout-out and gift at graduation, which was held on June 11. When they did, they were elated.
“I think it’s very generous of people to do [this] because, like I said, a lot of people aren’t generous. People won’t even help me when I ask for it,” Izzy said afterward. “I think doing something like that for someone who didn’t even ask is a really nice thing to do.”
Grace, too, was surprised and touched by the gesture during the ceremony.
“They did a very nice speech, which made me cry, and it was a really special thing,” she said.
As Izzy and Grace leave Sacred Heart behind and begin a new chapter at Holy Cross this fall, Conlan remarked how their bond embodies a special aspect that comes with receiving a Catholic education.
“I think these two girls really represent not only friendship but the spiritual connection, the lifetime friendships that are created in a Catholic school,” Conlan said. “Not just at Sacred Heart, but at all Catholic schools — because I think that community we create makes us so special.”