October Gr8 Acts of Kindness winner gives "the gift of life"

AK Barnes was surprised by family, friends and members of the community at Highland High School. (Source: KAIT-TV)
AK Barnes was surprised by family, friends and members of the community at Highland High School. (Source: KAIT-TV)
Dialysis was very difficult for Reba Johnson. (Source: Reba Johnson)
Dialysis was very difficult for Reba Johnson. (Source: Reba Johnson)
AK Barnes with her son during the difficult recovery phase following surgery. (Source: AK Barnes)
AK Barnes with her son during the difficult recovery phase following surgery. (Source: AK Barnes)
Reba celebrates a return to the family life she knew before dialysis. (Source: Reba Johnson)
Reba celebrates a return to the family life she knew before dialysis. (Source: Reba Johnson)

HIGHLAND, AR (KAIT) - Some gifts you can't put a price on. No amount of money could ever repay the generosity shown by a Sharp County woman who gave part of herself—so that her friend might live.

Amy Kathryn Barnes, better known as A.K., teaches her Highland High School students about radio, television, and film. But, over the course of the past summer, she also taught them about selfless, unfettered giving.

"It takes a lot to do something like that for your friend," Luke Hall, a Highland High School senior said. "I was proud of her."

Hall has completed several of Barnes' classes. He said her choice to help a friend through organ donation does not surprise him.

To understand the journey, we have to rewind the clock back to 2008. Reba Johnson was diagnosed with stage four kidney failure. She was placed on dialysis in November 2016.

"It [dialysis] completely changed my life," Johnson said. "When I went on dialysis, it was just the hardest thing."

Many months before the dialysis began, A.K. was seven hours away at a prayer meeting in Kansas City. She was listening to well-known preacher Francis Chan.

"He's super-passionate and super dynamic when he preaches," Barnes said. "He started to tell a story about a man laying his life down for a friend."

She listened intently to the story about an older man in need of a kidney transplant.

"The Bible says if you have two coats, you need to give your neighbor a coat," Barnes said. "He's like, 'I've got two kidneys, I'll give him a kidney.' And I was just so blown away by that story. I don't know why. And I was just like God, I want to do that for somebody. I will do that if you want me to. I would love to."

At that same time, Reba decided to look for a new church home. She missed the first service at a church she planned on attending that morning. Then, she headed to Abundant Life Church. Ironically, she saw A.K. that very day and volunteered to help with a ministry program.

"She started coming to our church in the fall of 2013," Barnes said. "Actually that day I had said something about this program that we were doing. It's a class for single pregnant mothers and we needed another volunteer."

Reba signed up and the pair began work on programs for pregnant teens and single mothers called, "Embrace Grace." Reba wasn't feeling bad yet, and the two women worked tirelessly to envelop teens with Christian love.

But, in December 2016, Reba's health began to change quickly.

"I did my dialysis at home," Johnson said.

It became apparent Reba would need a kidney transplant.

"My husband was not a match," Johnson said.

But, Reba didn't feel panicked.

"I just felt like something was going to work out," Johnson said.

"God's pretty awesome how he works thing out for us," Barnes said.

A.K. didn't know how bad Reba was feeling for a while.

"She never said anything about it," Barnes said. "She just kind of suffered in silence."

But, once A.K. learned Reba was really sick, it didn't take long before she stepped up to help.

"I knew that I was a match the moment she was sick," Barnes said. "She tried to talk me out of it. She's like, 'You're a single mom. You can't do this. You're young. I'm pretty stubborn. So once I make up my mind, I go for it."

"I'm like no, you're not going to give me a kidney. You're a single mother. You're only 29," Johnson said. "You're not going to give me a kidney and she said, 'Yes, I am!'"

The pair underwent much testing, counseling, and preparation for the surgery in Memphis, TN. A.K. explained that counselors more than once offered her the chance to back out of donating her kidney, but she remained steadfast in her conviction to help Reba.

"We had a lot of trips together because they had to do a lot of cross-matching and a lot of tests to make sure we were all in good health," Barnes explained.

Both women had to be in the best physical shape possible. That meant exercise, losing weight and months of preparation for the surgery.

A.K. seemed undaunted in the quest to lose weight. As a single parent, she has faced many hurdles.

"I became pregnant and had to raise him [her son] by myself with the help of the family," Barnes said. "But you know, I wasn't married and I was single. I was the preacher's daughter and I was so ashamed. It was super hard."

But the pain associated with kidney donation would prove to be just as hard. A.K. said it was excruciating on day two.

"I was talking to God and saying, 'Can you please relieve me of some of this pain?' I was just crying out to him--cause I mean. I couldn't even walk," Barnes said. "I just had this verse come to my mind. There's no greater gift than laying down your life for your friend. He just reminded me of what he did for us. He took our burdens, our pain, and our shame."

That sacrifice was and is life-changing.

A.K.'s kidney helped Reba return to the life she knew before as a wife and mother. She nominated A.K. for the Gr8 Acts of Kindness and helped us to find the perfect place to surprise her.

A.K. teaches radio, television, and film courses at Highland High School. The Arkansas State University graduate has the respect of her students.

"It is definitely deserved," Hall said.

He has taken every one of her classes in preparation for a career in broadcasting.

Plans to surprise A.K. involve the Rebel homecoming at Highland High School.

"Hello! How are the Rebels doing today?" I said. "It's a very special time. I know a lot of people have sacrificed so you could be here today. Your coaches, your parents, maybe even your teachers."

A.K. is now making gestures from the sidelines to her students to videotape certain pieces of the program.

"There's a story of sacrifice and giving that I would like to share with you," I said. "But, wait a minute! I think you might already know this story. It involves two women who you know right here in this room. Where is A.K. Barnes?"

A.K.'s students begin pointing in her direction, and she emerges from the crowd and make her way across the gymnasium floor.

"You did that!" I said. "You laid your life down for a friend, a very special friend."

"I was so honored. I was touched," A.K. said. "I could see all these people from the community, and I'm like what's going on."

Reba soon joined A.K. at the center of the gym.

"If I had another one [kidney], I'd give it to her," A.K. said.

"For those who do know about this gift, it was a medical miracle," I said. "Even siblings do not have a perfect match many times when it comes to a kidney, but you two did! You came together through a series of things that happened. Miraculous things. You gave her the gift of life. Something money can't buy."

In Reba's letter nominating A.K. for the Gr8 Acts of Kindness, she wrote, "A.K. is selfless beyond anything I have ever known."

That selflessness, coupled with a divine plan, led to an outcome that even Reba's doctors did not anticipate. Even after a transplant, some patients continue for a brief while on dialysis.

"But the minute it [the kidney] was transferred to [Reba], it started working, and there was no more dialysis," I said. "You gave her a most precious gift. The gift of life. For all that you've given, for all that you are and all those that you inspire around this room, A.K. Barnes, you are the next Gr8 Acts of Kindness winner!"

"I would do anything for Reba," Barnes said. "And she would do it for me."

Screams and laughter fill the gymnasium as the crowd counts along with the $408 being placed into A.K.'s hand.

"I'm proud of you, Mommy," A.K.'s little boy said within earshot of the camera trained on her.

Flanked by First Community Bank personnel, A.K. and Reba are then joined by a stream of family and friends.

It was a moment the pair said they won't forget for a very long time.

Even though the surgery is over and life has returned to normal for both, the women remain close.

"We'll never be separated," Johnson said. "I've got her kidney!"

Copyright 2017 KAIT. All rights reserved.

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