Altoona special education teacher Karl Estright said Victoria Kissel wouldn't let concerns about her health keep her from the normal adolescent experiences of her peers.
Despite Kissel's osteogenesis imperfecta - a condition that causes bones to break easily and left her lungs undersized - she wanted to attend school after connecting with teenagers in her Altoona neighborhood," he said.
Kissel was raised by her grandparents Ken and Lee Neibauer, and they were there to support her every step of the way, said longtime family friend and neighbor Audra Leonard. Kissel graduated from Altoona Area High School in 2009.
Mirror file photo by J.D. Cavrich
Victoria Kessel works in the computer lab at Altoona Area High School in 2007. Kessel, who died at 23 because of complications from osteogenesis imperfecta, was ‘a beautiful person,’ AAHS principal Patty Burlingame said.
"She was just the sunshine of everything," Leonard said.
Kissel died Friday at age 23 due to complications from her disease. Kissel's type of the disease was the most rare and leads to deformed bones and an underdeveloped heart and lungs.
High school Principal Patty Burlingame said Kissel's fellow students were "blessed by her."
"She was a beautiful person who was also very funny," Burlingame said, "and they enjoyed being around her."
Estright began working with Kissel when she was in fourth grade. He said she was always excited to learn and try new things, but she could usually convince her teacher to loosen up the lessons.
And, he added, he rarely stopped laughing when he was around her.
"Her papa [Ken] said one time that when you're out there, it's like I have two children," Estright said. "She had me wrapped around her finger."
Estright said he and fellow special education teacher Amy Banks once took a newly teenage Kissel shopping. At about 3 feet tall, Kissel was often dressed in clothes younger than her age, because it's what fit.
On that trip, however, she refused anything with "kittens or rainbows or butterflies." Estright said she had no problem returning a joke, either.
"We could kid each other," he said. "She would kid me. I could call her 'shorty.'"
Leonard, who was in a relationship with Kissel's uncle Brian for about eight years, said Kissel's grandparents also ensured she experienced another milestone in her life. When she turned 21, they took her to a bar.
The bartender was smitten with her, too, Leonard said.
"The bartender, he was attached to her," Leonard said. "He just made her giggle and giggle."
Kissel also charmed some more famous people, including singer Ricky Martin and former President Bill Clinton.
"You think it's someone that couldn't do much done," Leonard said. "[Her grandparents] did everything out there to make her a normal child."
She said the house seems emptier without Kissel to greet visitors coming through the door, Leonard said, but the family knows that she can finally accomplish one of her goals - a trip she wouldn't have been able to take in life because of her condition.
Leonard said Kissel's grandparents often hosted foreign exchange students, and from one of them, Kissel developed a love of all things Japanese.
"That was her biggest dream: To go to Japan. We all knew she couldn't because of [the dangers of] flying," Leonard said. "Well, she's finally in Japan where she always wanted to be."
A memorial service for Kissel will be held at noon Saturday at Altoona Alliance Church. Friends will be received from 11 a.m. until noon.
Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7535.