Jeff Truesdell
January 06, 2015 11:00 AM

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, New Mexico teen Kendal Sanders shares her remarkable story of recovery and forgiveness after being shot at school by a classmate.

“Sometimes it’s like a blessing in disguise,” says Kendal, now 14. “Like, everyone’s saying I’ve built a stronger faith.”

But it’s come at a price she’s still paying. Now an 8th grader at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, New Mexico, Kendal was lingering in the gymnasium with other students before the first bell on Jan. 14, 2014, when gunfire silenced their chatter.

The second and third round of exploding shotgun shells fired by fellow student Mason Campbell, then 12, hit Kendal and Nathaniel Tavarez, then also 12, with hundreds of BB-sized lead pellets. Both still carry those pellets in their bodies and struggle with the aftereffects.

Mason was sentenced to juvenile detention lasting no longer than his 21st birthday after pleading no contest to three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and one count of carrying a deadly firearm on school premises. He randomly fired after writing in a journal that he’d been a victim of school bullying.

Kendal forgave her assailant and, last July, accepted his courtroom apology. And as she continues therapy to try and rebuild strength in an arm, back and leg hobbled by muscle injury, she stays focused on moving forward with purpose – and, hopefully, a return to playing her favorite sport, volleyball.

“We’re a strong family, and we’ll get through it,” she says of her mom Nickie Portion, 42, dad Bert Sanders, 44, and sister Kailynn, 18. “This will never bring us down.”

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