Everyone gets back what they give Katie Rolf – and then some
Meet Katie Rolf, president and CEO of Katie’s Kookies. Now, step back. Katie’s a talker, and she’ll bowl you over with her enthusiasm for life. “I love baking cookies,” she’ll tell you. “I love riding horses. I love playing the piano. I love doing a lot of things.”
While she talks, she smiles widely and laughs generously. She doesn’t sit still, and her hands and arms talk to you as much as her words do. She runs her gourmet dog biscuit business with help from her assistant, her grandmother, she says. She competes in Special Olympics in bowling, equestrian events, basketball, snowshoeing and more. She sings in the VSA Montana choir and plays in the handbell choir at her church.
Katie is one of the busiest 28-year-olds around, and she has a life that was not such a sure thing back in 1984. She was born on an April day in Casper, Wyo., three months premature. She and her twin brother, Matthew, were tiny and fragile. Katie weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces. Doctors for her mother, Barb and the twins called a team from the Children’s Hospital in Denver, and they flew to Casper. They couldn’t save Matthew, but they took Katie back to Denver and set about trying to grow her into a healthy infant who could go home.
“I was the size of a golf ball,” says Katie, who can tell the story with the medical details. “Grandpa could hold me in his hand.”
That was true, said Katie’s grandfather, Norm Balko, on a recent Saturday afternoon with the family on the expansive back deck of Norm and Dorie Balko’s log home in Lower Miller Creek in Missoula, Mont.
“We went right down there,” Norm remembers. “She was there three months.”
Katie’s life was challenged by disorders common to premature babies but nonetheless serious. She had heart surgery when she was five days old. She had hyaline membrane disease, which prevents premature lungs from taking in enough oxygen. She also had bleeding in her brain. When she was one month old, her family learned she was blind.
During her stay in The Newborn Center’s neonatal intensive care unit, family surrounded her as much as they could. Barb had to return to her job at a bank in Casper and drove 370 miles each weekend to be with Katie.
At three months, Katie finally weighed five pounds and got to go home. She and her family struggled throughout her infancy and childhood to help her become as strong and able as she could be. She has a mild case of cerebral palsy and a cognitive delay and endured many surgeries on her eyes because of congenital glaucoma that produced tremendous pressure and painful headaches.
Intervention was a new concept
Katie got extra help from the beginning at the Colorado School for the Deaf & Blind, where she entered the Early Intervention Program as an infant and continued until kindergarten. At the time, early intervention was a new concept just legislated, Barb Rolf said, and it has proved to be so beneficial to so many children, like Katie.
“The early intervention was awesome,” Barb said. “She got such a good start.”
When Katie was a third-grader, her family moved back to Missoula to be near Barb’s parents. Katie went to Russell Elementary School, Meadow Hill Middle School and then Sentinel High School, where she graduated with honors in 2003 after working hard.
“She had some tremendous, tremendous teachers,” Norm said.
Part of the magic of Katie has been the inspiration she has been to people who know and love her.
Her Braille assistant, Kathy Sehorn, was inspired to go on to further training, becoming a Braille specialist and staying with Katie’s education for 13 years. She and Connie Peterson, Katie’s formal Braille instructor, taught Katie to read and to become the voracious reader she is today.
Katie’s grandmother Dorie, a teacher for 44 years, went back to school when Katie was born and earned a master’s degree in blind education. Then she went on to earn a doctorate from Columbia University in blind education and has worked with Katie throughout her life.
Barb also had a teaching degree and went on to earn a master’s degree as teacher of the visually impaired and became a certified orientation and mobility specialist. Today she works for the Montana School for the Deaf & Blind as an outreach vision specialist, traveling western Montana performing assessments of students and consulting with school districts. This summer, she completed certification in teaching children who are deaf and blind, a rare specialty in Montana.
Norm has been an inspired teacher for Katie, too.
“When she was just tiny, I felt that she should be able to do something that she could feel good about,” he said. “So I sat down at the piano with her. We started with one hand, and we built up quite a little repertoire. She’s developed into really loving music.”
Joe Peterson met Katie when he was working at Opportunity Resources and was helping with the Special Olympics five or six years ago. He was a little unnerved when he was assigned to adaptive basketball — and Katie.
“They said, ‘You’ll work with Katie,’” he said. “I had never worked with a blind person. But Katie said, ‘Come on, it’ll be great.’”
When Katie showed him how she played basketball using a portable sound source device that oriented her to the hoop, it was “absolutely phenomenal,” he said. She sank the ball three times in a row. Today, he has become a family friend and is still closely involved with Katie. The two are still laughing over their daring rides at the carnival at the Western Montana Fair in August, especially on the Roundup, which Katie describes as “almost like flying.”
“You’re not going to meet a more amazing group of people,” he said. “So dynamic.”
When Katie was in high school, her grandmother helped her start Katie’s Kookies, and the business is still strong. They bake three kinds of gourmet dog biscuits, baking three or four batches on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and delivering on Thursdays. The biscuits sell at the Good Food Store in Missoula and to a loyal following of private customers. They’re all natural with no preservatives, Katie says proudly.
“There’s nothing in them that can hurt you,” she said. “All natural. People can eat them too.”
“She is the best salesman,” her grandmother said. “You’d buy her cookies even if you don’t have a dog.”
Katie’s biscuit business grew from her love of animals. She’s quick to tell you she has four dogs and 11 horses and loves them all. The family has pasture acreage behind their houses, and Barb is a therapeutic riding instructor who operated a therapeutic riding organization for a time. One of the family horses is a beautiful Morgan named Danielle. Katie won Danielle in 1995 by writing the superior essay in a contest puton by Red Fox Farm in Gilroy, Calif. The writers had to tell why they should win the horse.
She wrote her essay in Braille and included, “I deserve a Morgan horse because I am a special person. Many refer to the dog as ‘man’s best friend.’ To me, a Morgan horse would be the best friend that I could have.”
A roomful of ribbons Katie has a roomful of ribbons she has won in Special Olympics competitions, including equestrian awards. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Katie carefully but confidently took a ride on Holly, one of the Balkos’ therapy horses. Her steady horse of many years, Chickasaw, recently retired, and Katie and Holly are getting to know each other. Katie sits up straight, her long blond braid heading south down her back.
“Katie is a polished rider,” Joe said. “Her form is great.”
Katie’s future looks as busy as the present. She’s a die-hard Bob Marley fan who wants to go to Jamaica one day. She’s also thinking of starting visits to elementary schools to read to students. What makes Katie special are her sparkling personality and her joy for living, said Bob Kimbell, Katie’s case manager at AWARE, Inc.
“It’s her infectious enthusiasm for life,” he said. “She’s just so excited about everything that’s going on in her life. It’s just so great to work with her.”
Is it Katie, or is it her nurturing family?
“I think people with that joie de vivre are born with it,” he said. “But certainly, her family has brought that out.”
Certainly, her family is invested, said Norm.
“We’re all about keeping her healthy and giving her a good life,” he said. “I think it’s just natural. She knows she’s loved.”
And everyone gets back what they give Katie — and then some — said her mom.
“I think what’s cool about Katie is people can approach her and have a little apprehension about talking to her, but pretty soon, she’s just a part of themselves,” she said. “She’s a natural teacher. She’s had so much adversity, and she’s overcome everything.”
Ginny Merriam is a freelance writer in Missoula, Mont., and a frequent contributor to Apostrophe.