Shot by a Middle School Classmate, Kendal Sanders Rebuilds Her Life – and Forgives

Kendal Sanders, 14, says the shooter "did something that's going to continuously, for the rest of my life, challenge me"

Photo: Jeff Truesdell

Nearly one year ago, Kendal Sanders was in the crowded gymnasium before the morning bell at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, New Mexico, when she heard the “loud bang” that forever changed her life.

The first round of exploding shotgun shells hit the ceiling. The second and third rounds hit Kendal, then 13, and Nathaniel Tavarez, then 12, spraying both with scores of BB-sized lead pellets – more than 150 in Kendal’s right shoulder, lung, chest, liver, kidney and near her spine, where they remain today.

Speaking to PEOPLE exclusively about the shooting and her long road back, Kendal says she asked her church pastors in the hospital: “Why did this happen? Why me?” She says, “They couldn’t really answer my question.”

The incident, on Jan. 14, 2014, was the second school shooting of 2014 – one of 20 this year, claiming eight lives, reports the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Another student, Mason Campbell, then 12, whose journal indicated he’d been bullied – although not by either student he injured – pleaded no contest to three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and one count of carrying a firearm on school premises. He was sentenced to juvenile detention lasting no longer than his 21st birthday.

“I know it wasn’t to hurt me, and I understand where he’s coming from,” Kendal tells PEOPLE about her path to forgiveness. But in describing her ongoing recovery, she also says that her assailant’s penalty is finite while her burden may last a lifetime.

She experiences near-constant pain in her arm, back and leg. She is monitored regularly for lead poisoning. Doctors say the possibility of passing tainted blood to a newborn could make it dangerous for her to have children. Possible additional surgeries loom.

“He did something that’s going to continuously, for the rest of my life, challenge me,” she says. “And after he gets out, he’s done. But I’m never going to be completely normal, like everyone else.”

Nathaniel struggles too, with injuries to his neck, face and eyes; he also still carries lead pellets in his body, has constant headaches, and has been told he will never fully regain his sight.

Yet Kendal has found not just forgiveness, but a way forward that has inspired others.

“We get our faith from her,” says her mom, Nickie Portio, 42. “Because I wasn’t as forgiving in the beginning. But it’s kind of hard for me not to forgive when she has.”

Says Kendal: “All you can do is, when something bad happens, trust God and hope and pray that it’s all going to turn out good.”

For much more on Kendal’s story and recovery, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

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