MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Sitting by the fire with her sister and mother, Destiny Cunningham sure seems like a well-adjusted 12-year old. You’d never know the trouble she was holding in four years ago, when she was just starting school at Longfellow Elementary in Minneapolis.

She was shutting down at home and struggling in school, because she was hurting.

“About a year before she came to the school, a family friend had a heart attack and died in front of her,” said Destiny’s mother, Brooke Larson.

“(He) was my best friend for 16 years,” said Brooke. “To her, it was Uncle Brad. And in the beginning, we couldn’t even talk about it.”

Destiny had trouble making friends, behaved inappropriately in class and couldn’t open up.

“She was quiet, she was shy, she was really nervous,” said Brooke. “She was just in a shell.”

Enter in-school therapist Margaret Shoemaker and her puppets. She connected with the confused little girl — by playing.

“I would say, ‘when you come here, we’re going to talk a little bit about feelings’ and usually those were even in a game format, and then we’d play,” said Margaret.

Destiny doesn’t remember much of their sessions, but realizes they made a difference.

“Now that I’m older, expressing my feelings more, it’s all together now. Put together,” said Destiny.

Destiny’s mother knows very well the difference.

“For the most part, she’s no longer a little shy turtle inside the shell. She’s hanging out,” said Brooke.

Now, Destiny’s family has a home, stability and a whole lot of gratitude.

“I was so grateful and I thank God every night that got that woman in my life, and helped Destiny,” said Brooke.

Margaret still has Destiny’s handprint on the wall: five fingers representing things she achieved.

“She was way more self-confident. She was in band and tennis, and was extremely musical — as is her mother. And performed a little concert for me at the end,” said Margaret.

During Destiny’s therapy, Margaret also discovered a learning disability. Destiny was three grade levels behind in reading. But now she’s gotten help and she’s almost all caught up.