“It was a huge punch to the gut.”
Linda Murray-Stollenwerk received a letter from the Holmen School District on Wednesday. She read it multiple times, trying to grasp what the school was saying.
The letter said current construction Holmen High School required removing the wall currently holding plaques and pictures hanging in memory of students and staff, who passed away.
“The School District of Holmen recognized that the loss of a student or staff member has a significant impact on students, staff, families, and community,” the letter read. “The focus of the District is to support students in their learning. While the District wants to support students and staff who are grieving a loss, memorials can be an ongoing reminder of a traumatic event and can be impossible for students to avoid when located on District property or included in school-wide events. Therefore, the District would like to honor our former students and staff members by returning the plaques from the Memorial Wall to the families of the deceased.”
The letter concluded by saying Stollenwerk was welcome to pick up the plaque honoring her daughter, Mia Stollenwerk, who passed away before she could graduate high school.
Upset, Stollenwerk posted the letter on Facebook and was shocked at the community’s response. By early Friday morning, her post was shared over 430 times, had over 130 comments, and a petition was circulating online with over 4,600 of the 5,000 signatures requested, to keep the Memorial Wall.
“The way that people have shown up for this is the, there’s no word for it,” Stollenwerk said. “That shows the strength of this community and the people that live here. We love our kids. We’re very proud of our kids, and that doesn’t go away with when they pass away.”
A graduate of Holmen High School herself, Stollenwerk said the community has always been supportive of her family. The mother of five children saw the community come together to support Mia’s journey.
“When she was diagnosed and going to school there, we knew she was in the absolute best place she could be and that we could be,” Stollenwerk said. “This is a district that always had our backs. They had my family’s best interests in mind, and I think this was just a really bad decision.”
Mia was diagnosed with juvenile Huntington’s when she was 8 years old. Huntington’s Disease also took her father’s life.
“It’s neurological, and it is degenerative, so basically Mia went from a soccer-playing 8-year-old, highly energetic, loved to read, loved to do school work, loved to be in school, to towards the end of her life, she was in a wheelchair,” Stollenwerk said remembering her daughter. “She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t talk. She could not eat.”
No matter how devastating the disease was to her body, it never took her spirit. The family and Mia used her story to motivate others.
“Anybody that knew her would tell you how much they learned from her,” Stollenwerk said. “Here’s a kid that basically had everything taken away, and yet she was always trying to crack a joke or make somebody laugh.”
Stollenwerk remembers Mia as a girl who always had a hug or a smile and held up a peace sign when she lost her ability to speak.
Through her diagnosis, Mia loved to be in school.
“She loved her teachers. She loved her classmates. She loved her friends. It’s just very heartbreaking to me that the place where she liked to be most, which was at school, is making a decision to remove her memory from their school,” Stollenwerk said.
Stollenwerk said she spoke with students and staff, who felt the plaques there were more therapeutic than traumatic.
“It honors our kids whose entire lives were spent at home or within school walls,” she said. “They didn’t get a chance to graduate. They didn’t get a chance to put a senior picture up with their class. They didn’t get to go to college and get married, have kids, go to work. Everything that these kids did was within the home and school district. They deserve a place they deserve a 5″x7” spot on the wall.”
She reached out to Dr. Kristen Mueller, district administrator, asking for a personal explanation over the phone but did not receive a response.
On Thursday, the district sent a follow-up letter regretting that the initial letter was not sensitive to the families and communities.
“While the wall holding the memorial plaques being removed due to remodeling, the students and families are not forgotten. The SDH cares and values all students in our buildings, even ones that have left us too soon. For many, this may have opened up a hurtful wound and for that, we are very sorry. While there are families who are upset over this decision we have families who have expressed gratitude to regain their memorials and place them in locations that are more personal to them.”
The letter, signed by Dr. Mueller, said prior to the construction project, the District leadership and the Crisis Response and Recovery team reviewed research and reflected on the best practices to address trauma and loss regarding permanent memorials. Additionally, the district recognized the memorial wall was not a true representation of all students who lost their lives while students at Holmen.
It also suggested living memorials, such as an annual 5K run/walk, scholarships or donations to charity, are the best ways to honor those families wish to remember.
Stollenwerk argued the district should not be making decisions as to how to best remember lost children. She added putting together a run/walk each year in her daughter’s memory would be emotionally difficult.
“When I have to relive year after year her situation, and the fact that she’s not here, that is traumatic. It’s traumatic for me. That’s traumatic for my kids her siblings.”
She agreed scholarships or donations are adequate suggestions, but did not agree that they could not be in addition to a small piece of space at school.
“We’re not asking them to erect a room or a trophy case,” Stollenwerk said. “We just want their pictures hung up.”
She hopes the district will listen to what the community has said in the 24 hours since the letters were released and reverse their decision. Stollenwerk also expressed interest in reviewing the data the district used to make this decision on behalf of students and staff.
“I’m really not going to stop until we get this,” Stollenwerk said. “I told Mia a long time ago that I would fight for her, and I will continue to do that.”
She planned to reach out to the school board if she did not receive a personal response from the district and intends to request a spot on the agenda for the next school board meeting which are held on the second and fourth Monday of the month.