Mitzvah project becomes a miracle for 7-year-old

By Lee Stephens….

Lauren Pelletier (left) and Katharine Koonce are pictured with Roly Cruz-Taura, the Biltmore Hotel’s executive chef, at Interactive Luncheon fundraiser.

When 12-year-old Lauren Pelletier and her family met Katharine Koonce at a mutual chef friend’s dinner in Walt Disney World, it was magic.

Blond hair, blue eyed Katharine had just overcome a long journey in her recovery process at Shriner’s Hospital in California after suffering burns over 70 percent of her body in a horrific fire that tore through the building in which her family sought shelter during Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Lauren, whose heart was captured immediately by the sparkle in Katharine’s eyes and her spirit, vowed then and there that when the time came for her mitzvah project that it would be a fundraiser for Katharine to help her with the surgeries and with the care she would require for the rest of her life.

In March, when Lauren met with Rabbi Edwin Goldberg of Temple Judea to discuss her upcoming bat mitzvah, she knew exactly the mitzvah (or good deed) she would do prior to her big day.

Sharing Katharine’s story with the rabbi, she also spoke of her own love of cooking and her plan for an interactive luncheon at the Cellar Club in the Biltmore Hotel, an event they host monthly for members. Her luncheon would be a fundraiser for Katharine.

On May 15, “Cooking for Katharine” drew 100 guests to the Biltmore Hotel for the affair that raised more than $18,000. Katharine, along with her mother and aunt, joined the Pelletiers in making this day even more meaningful. Executive chef Roly Cruz-Taura teamed up with Lauren on stage to guide participants through Shrimp Enchilado with Black Beans in a Corn Tortilla Shell and Chicken Quesadillas with Pineapple Guacamole and Tomato Salsa.

All the kids left the Ballroom to escort in a huge birthday cake prepared by pastry chef Olivia Rodriquez while singing Happy Birthdayto Katharine. The room was filled with such love and compassion. Everyone opened their hearts and their wallets.

The story only gets better from here. By sheer coincidence Dan Pelletier stumbled upon a true angel, Dr. Jill Waibel. Dr. Waibel is a leader in the industry for treating scars, having successfully developed the latest laser technology procedures and techniques for treating the scars of burn survivors. Burn victims are her passion and when she met Katharine, she immediately offered to treat her pro bono.

Katharine’s father James was burned over 50 percent of his body while saving Katharine. Dr. Waibel eagerly arranged to make the connection for Katharine and her father to meet with the best doctors in the country.

All from one little girl’s heart reaching out to another little girl’s hand, this mitzvah spiraled into a lifetime of healing opportunities for both families.

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