By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
Thumbs up. That simple, positive gesture is one that Kelli Sakaguchi, 14, uses often.
She was just a typical Japanese American kid from Torrance who played basketball for the FOR Kool Kats and Triple S Warriors. Her life changed on June 23, 2014, when a devastating car accident on the 91 Freeway left her with critical injuries, including brain trauma, a broken leg and damage to her spinal cord that has left her unable to walk.
That she is still this shy eighth-grader, worrying about geometry homework and selling Girl Scout cookies, is a testament to Kelli’s remarkable resiliency, courage and strength. It also speaks to the strength and support of her parents, Wesley and Naomi Sakaguchi, 11-year-old brother Nicholas, and a collection of friends, many in the basketball leagues, who have been there for the family since the accident.
On May 2, the Get Up 8 Foundation will raise funds for Kelli’s future medical needs at their third annual Jamie Pajo Outrigger Race at the Long Beach Marine Stadium in Long Beach. More than 200 paddlers are expected to compete for medals in three divisions: men’s, women’s, and coed.
“After we had the opportunity to meet Kelli, she was an easy selection for our 2015 ‘The Race’ grant recipient. Kelli is an extremely brave girl with a great, positive attitude,” explained Ryan Okita, a Get Up 8 Foundation board member.
“Kelli lives by the proverb our organization was named after, ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight.’ Kelli has fallen down many times with the tragic car accident, the surgeries to save her life, the painful physical therapy, the apprehension of going back to school, and then the stress to catch up and do well academically. Kelli gets up every time and is still smiling,” he said.
Thumbs up was one of the hand gestures Kelli used to communicate in the early difficult days in the Pediatric ICU ward of Harbor UCLA Hospital. She has no memory of the accident or much of the month spent in ICU, where she first breathed with the help of a ventilator and ate from a feeding tube.
During those harrowing weeks, friends from her basketball team would visit Kelli, surrounding her hospital bed. Wesley and Naomi said they were amazed with the support she received from her friends.
“What she doesn’t remember at Harbor UCLA was her friends coming by. That really helped a lot. Her friends who lived around here came by almost every day,” Wesley recalled.
Her teammates would crowd into the hospital room and encourage Kelli to move her hands. The friends even got a small basketball hoop and brought toy squishy balls.
“They got her to do a lot more than the doctors or we could ask her to do,” Naomi said. “They’d ask her to do thumbs up to make sure she could hear and understand. They got her to do peace signs, shakas.”
After one month, Kelli transferred to Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center in Downey, where she stayed until September. At Rancho Los Amigos she went through physical rehabilitation and eventually had her feeding tubes removed. She also worked with a speech therapist who helped her relearn how to breathe on her own and talk.
As Kelli continued to recover, her friends sent their support at events like Nikkei Games where they wore “#TeamKelli” T-shirts and wrote messages of encouragement.
Dawn Sasaki and Tracy Pakele, whose daughters played basketball with Kelli, helped to organize fundraisers at the Loft Hawaiian Restaurant and Aloha Pizza in Gardena. Another friend, Cheryl Nishimura, contacted the Get Up 8 Foundation for the upcoming fundraiser.
On Oct. 6, 2014, Kelli was greeted with an emotional welcome back at the South Bay Youth game between the Kool Kats and the OCO Heat at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Less than six months after the accident, Kelli returned to classes at First Lutheran School in Torrance on Nov. 3 to start the second quarter. During her rehabilitation, teachers would send schoolwork so she could keep up. Friends continue to help her as she makes her way through the school day.
“All friends help me, they get stuff out of my backpack, they push me up ramps, that type of stuff,” Kelli said.
Today, Kelli still goes to rehabilitation on Tuesdays and Fridays at Rancho Los Amigos. On Saturdays her family drives down to Carlsbad, where Kelli receives acupuncture and additional training at Project Walk, a paralysis recovery center. At Project Walk, the trainers work below the level of Kelli’s injury, with the hope that one day she will be able to walk again.
Unfortunately, the treatment isn’t covered by insurance. The family says they remain grateful for all the support given to Kelli as she continues her rehabilitation.
“We have been humbled by their generosity and rendered speechless by all of their love. We will keep believing in miracles and asking for God’s blessing in getting Kelli to walk again,” said Naomi. “She’s a tough little girl with a lot of heart. I truly believe that with everyone’s prayers, that our prayers will be answered and she will lead and happy, healthy life filled with laughter and love. That is my wish for her.”
Outrigger racing takes place at the Long Beach Marine Stadium, 5255 Paoli Way, Long Beach. Team check-in begins at 8:30 a.m.; races start at 10 a.m. There will also be a variety of entertainment and games for kids. For more information on the race and Kelli Sakaguchi, visit www.getup8.org.