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Friendship forged: Former teacher and family come together amid pandemic, health troubles

Bond further solidified during last weekend's oral language competition

Bakersfield residents Janie Keller and Audilia Gallardo began their friendship at a tough moment in each of their lives. Gallardo's mom was at the end of her life, and Keller found that her body was beginning to fail her.

The two developed a deep bond helping each other through their personal struggles, the pandemic and also through one of the high points of the year. Keller, a retired teacher, coached Gallardo's 9-year-old daughter Annabel who went on to represent Plantation Elementary at the Kern County Oral Language Festival this weekend.

"This friendship is more than amazing to me," Gallardo said. "What I have is a blessing."

The pair met over the phone because Gallardo, an immigrant from Guatemala, was translating for Keller's gardener who only spoke Spanish. Keller offered to pray for Gallardo's mom, and Gallardo learned about health problems plaguing Keller and would offer to take her to the clinic or run errands.

Keller, 69, is a retired teacher of Norris School District. It's not clear what causes her health problems, though her immune system seems to be the culprit. Last year, however, it started getting much harder to function. Walking, standing and doing basic house chores were all getting tougher.

Keller said she was in her walker in her garden one day and she said a sort of prayer.

"As a joke, I said, 'Lord, I need another Janie,'" she said. "But it was a joke! A week later she showed up."

Gallardo said Keller seemed resistant at first but when the pandemic hit, Keller asked for toilet paper, or "gold" as she called it. Gallardo showed up on her doorstep with 85 rolls and Gallardo's two young daughters, Annabel and Samantha. That was the beginning of their friendship.

Gallardo's mom had passed away by then and turning her energy to help Keller felt like a blessing, she said.

"It was a pleasure to help someone else," she said.

And Keller really needed it. One day the pair were talking on the phone and Keller mentioned using a flashlight to get around the kitchen. Gallardo went over to change her lightbulb and help her pick up around the kitchen. Since then, she's started to check in on her and to help her around the house, doing laundry, running errands and taking her to appointments.

"The whole family, they’ve adopted me," Keller said. "Now I’ve got these girls, and they’re so loving and kind."

And Keller had something to offer, too. One day Annabel mentioned she was planning to enter the school's oral language competition. Keller used to coach winners in the past, and she jumped at the chance to coach the fourth grader.

"I saw her eyes light up," Gallardo said. "She was so happy."

Keller described Annabel as creative and right-brained, a natural actress. She seemed to come to every session with a new move or expression.

"She’s very quiet but she has a lot to offer," Gallardo said. "She’s really talented."

Annabel did have some challenges to overcome. She had speech troubles since she was young, and she still had trouble pronouncing her r's. The festival gave her an extra incentive to practice her speech, her mom said. She would record herself saying words like "earth" in her piece "Diary of a Worm" and listen to herself. Her speech improved.

"I admire my daughter, because she didn’t give up," Gallardo said.

The hard work paid off and Annabel placed second in the district and went on to the county competition. 

"I said I tried my best and I hope that all of the judges in the county can see it and they did," she said.

Annabel didn't place this year but she said that her family worked on cheering her up through her loss. Her older sister Samantha reminded her that she, too, had participated in oral language when she was younger, but she had never gone on to the county level. The whole experience was a bonding moment for the family — Keller included.

"It was very emotional," Gallardo said. "It was really nice."

Life isn't easy for Keller right now. She got kicked off Medicare for missing the date on a payment, and she's trying to navigate the bureaucracy to get back on. But she's a spiritual woman who feels like God has provided for her any time she's been in need.

During her birthday last month, Keller blurted out to Gallardo's husband that she loved him and almost immediately regretted it. Though he had been taking care of her, too, she hadn't met him in person and it felt like she had crossed a line.

Keller teared up recounting the way he responded: "I love you, Janie. You're never going to be alone. You have a family."