She's an aspiring artist and actress; her heroine is Temple Grandin, doctor of animal science, professor at Colorado State University, best-selling author, and a woman with autism. She is also an Irish Step dancer who just happens to be Jewish, who with the help of her family, teachers and faith as well as community is slowly blossoming into the woman that God wants her to be.
Her name is Hannah Kandel. Her middle name is Rose and she has autism.
"We always said she would blossom in her own time and that is what has happened," said her mother Merrylee Kandel.
Hannah's blue eyes twinkled behind her deep purple glasses as she recalled the other roses in her life. "I'm the original Rose, the rose in bloom," she said. The other roses in her life are Michaela Rose, the blossom; and Ashlinn Rose the bud. Michaela is the daughter of her tutor and Ashlinn is the daughter of one of her former nannies.
She will share her story tonight at the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island's 8 p.m. worship service.
Hannah is the middle child of Merrylee and Dr. Joseph Kandel. She was developing normally and was speaking at age 1. And then something went awry and she lost her language ability. Hannah was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the family began intervention at 15 months.
"My brain is just wired differently," she said. "It's as if you went in the kitchen to turn on light and the blender goes on instead."
Temple Shalom is the family's second home and Hannah was welcomed into its preschool at age 3. Caren Plotkin, religious school director, was willing to explore ways to meet Hannah's needs and to pull her into the Jewish community.
Her parents provided Sandy Kivett, who has been her shadow, tutor and aid for the past 17 years. Hannah attended Eden Florida, and then Seacrest Country Day School, where she graduated from eighth grade. She also attended Naples High School for one year before attending Journeys Academy. When Journeys closed last year, she transferred to Eden where she is currently working on her GED.
Eden Florida provides services to improve the lives of children and adults with autism and to support to their families by providing a range of community based services to meet specific needs throughout the lifespan.
Kivett, a Christian, didn't think about religion when she first began to work with Hannah. Her was role was to teach her how to function and communicate. As she continued to grow and develop it was time to teach her about God. "How do you tell someone about God who cannot communicate?" mused Kivett.
"I didn't know what she would understand," said Kivett. "I am humbled that I could teach a child that could not say her own name at the time about God. It has been a wonderful experience for my daughter Michaela Rose, age 14, and me."
A highlight for Kivett, her family and the congregation at Temple Shalom was when Hannah had her Bat Mitzvah at 13, the traditional age for this ceremony. A Bar or Bat Mizvah consists of Torah reading in both Hebrew and English, chanting and prayers followed by a speech in front of the congregation.
"When Hannah gave her speech you could hear the air go out of the room," said Kivett. "It was powerful for me."
"Everyone was crying," said her father Dr. Kandel. Rabbi Jim Perman, Temple Shlalom's rabbi emeritus remarked at the time that he had read about miracles, talked about miracles, preached about miracles but this was the first time he had seen a miracle.
"The most important part of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah journey is empowerment, they recognize their strengths and frailties and to be able to use it," said Hari Jacobsen, the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island's Cantorial Soloist who tutors Temple Shalom's youth for their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. Jacobsen has a special place in her heart for Hannah who she tutored for two years.
"It is powerful for someone without dramatic, obvious challenges," she said. "Hannah proved that if you take a child with dramatic obvious challenges it's still empowering. If the child is empowered it is so moving."
Things have come full circle for the 20-year-old Hannah at Temple Shalom where she also attended Hebrew and Sunday School. She now greets the little ones and their parents as they arrive for Sunday School. She knows everyone's name and she also works as an aid in the art room where she preps for art classes. Art is her passion.
Her artistic abilities were first noticed when at Seacrest when at age 7 a teacher noted her unique sense of perspective. Her painting "Crazy Love," a deep red heart surrounded by swirling, vibrant pastels was chosen this spring by the United Nations to be one of its 2012 Autism Awareness Stamps. She will also create the graphics for the upcoming Center for Autism and other Related Disorders Conference in Tampa.
"My art speaks for me," said Hannah.
"When she spoke to us about winning the stamp contest there wasn't a dry eye in place," said Temple Shalom's Rabbi Adam Miller. "Everyone is included and welcomed here, we have others with special challenges who have been embraced by the congregation. We are all created in the divine image. We each have a divine spark in us, and blessings to offer. Interacting with Hannah opens our eyes to the blessings that are others."
Kathleen Tuttle, a Marco Island resident since 1987, has written articles for various nonprofits for more than 25 years. She is a community volunteer, former science teacher and microbiologist. Kathleen can be contacted at email@example.com.