WILMINGTON – Kelly Muschiatti’s graduation from Padua Academy was delayed for nearly two years while the 19-year-old recovered from life-threatening injuries suffered in an automobile accident in March 2016. So she was thrilled to be at Padua on Jan. 17 to collect her diploma after completing her academic requirements.
What she didn’t know when she walked through the front door was that her graduation would include more than picking up a piece of paper at the front office. When school administrators handed her a cap and gown instead, she realized that she would be getting a commencement ceremony – in front of the student body of more than 600 girls, faculty and staff.
She was overwhelmed.
“It is awesome. I thought, ‘I’m going to cry the entire time here,’ which I did. They really love me and made it an experience for me,” she said.
Muschiatti was a senior, just a few months from graduation, when her life changed. She was in the back seat of a pickup truck driven by Salesianum School senior John Kirsch. Her boyfriend of more than two years, Tyler Brown, was in the passenger seat.
The teens were in Middletown when Kirsch attempted to cross Route 301, but the truck was struck by a tractor-trailer. Brown was killed, and Muschiatti and Kirsch were injured. The accident sent shockwaves through the communities at Padua and Salesianum and through high schools across the state.
Kirsch, who admitted to drinking two beers before driving, was sentenced last summer to 60 days in prison and four months in home confinement. He has to serve probation and community service and was ordered to pay restitution to Brown’s family and to a victims’ compensation fund.
Muschiatti, a graduate of Christ the Teacher School, has endured extensive rehabilitation for her traumatic brain injury, and for a while her family was not sure this day would ever come. Her father, Mike, described how doctors removed part of her skull to prevent even more damage to her rapidly swelling brain. She had to re-learn basic skills, and there are lingering physical and cognitive issues.
Kelly and her parents expressed gratitude to Padua for welcoming her back and working with her and for giving her a true graduation experience.
“Everything that happens in this school is for a reason,” Kelly said. “The community will always be there for you to get you through the good, the bad and the horrible that you don’t think you can get through. No matter what, you can get through it all.” Fighting back tears, her mother, Theresa, said Kelly struggled in other educational settings after the accident and wanted to return to Padua.
“The way they rallied behind us was just amazing. It was so inspiring. They were so supportive, and it’s the only reason why we’re here today. Padua just opened their arms and welcomed us back,” she said.
Mike Muschiatti said he would always be grateful to the school. “They wanted her back; she wanted to be here. The girls here, and the teachers and Mrs. Mann, they just took her in. They changed her life. Padua is a special place. It’s more than just a school. It’s a community, it’s a sisterhood. I feel that coming back here saved her life.”
‘We never give up’
The students had no idea why they were called to a community homeroom, and a number of the girls gasped when they saw Muschiatti enter the gymnasium. Several had been her teammate on the track and field team. Muschiatti competed in the pole vault and had committed to Appalachian State University in North Carolina shortly before the accident.
Mary McClory, Padua’s assistant principal, announced to the crowd that Muschiatti had completed the requirements for graduation, and head of school Cindy Mann presented her with a diploma as the students rose from their seats. McClory then asked Muschiatti to move her tassel to the left side of her cap, and Mann presented her with a yellow rose, which all Padua graduates receive as a sign of the school’s sisterhood.
“We weren’t sure what the outcome was going to be, but look at you now,” Mann said. She added that the Padua student body deserved some of the credit. “Through their prayer and through the sisterhood of Padua, you stayed strong.”
“We never give up on ourselves, and we never give up on someone we love,” Mann continued. “And we never give up on a sister. Ever.”
Muschiatti was too emotional to address the students, but her mother described the support the family received along the way. One of the first people they called was Mann. Students from Padua, Salesianum and high schools all over Delaware converged on Christiana Hospital – more than 100 every day, often filling all available waiting rooms doing their homework while awaiting an update.
“It is because of you guys that Kelly’s here today,” Theresa Muschiatti told the assembly.
Muschiatti will be heading to New York University in March for three months of intensive therapy to get her ready for her next step. Although she was unable to attend Appalachian State as originally planned, the university held her spot for her, and in the fall, she plans on joining sister Ashley in Boone, N.C., as a student there. Ashley, a 2014 Padua graduate, is a member of the Mountaineers’ track and field program. Ashley will be staying at the school to pursue postgraduate studies, and Kelly is excited to finally be joining her sister – albeit a few years later than planned.
“It’s been the longest road ever for me. I just think back on all the love and support and the prayers I’ve had throughout the whole time.”