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Turning a tragedy into a triumph - Remembering Chase

November 06, 2019

An amazing article highlighting the work of Rebecca Kowalski and the CMAK Foundation in collaboration with our Y. We are so grateful for her support and continued dedication to remembering Chase by making the world a better place, one triathlon at a time. #BecauseY #CMAK #Race4Chase

CLICK HERE      to see the article on Republican American. 

Parents of Sandy Hook victim to present $20K donation to Greater Waterbury YMCA preschool program

Their son would have been 14.

Perhaps Chase Michael Anthony Kowalski would have outgrown the Halloween costume thing, or the candy. His parents will never know.

Chase was among the 20 first-graders and six adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 12, 2012.

“The last year he was Lightning McQueen ” his mother said, citing the character from the film “Cars.”

“It’s bittersweet. It’s not easy this time of the year because it starts with the weather changing, the leaves falling, Thanksgiving, his death and then Christmas,” she said, catching herself from a sob. “Tomorrow we’ll have had him for as many years as we haven’t.”

Since his killing, Chase’s parents, Rebecca and Stephen Kowalski, have been to determined to turn the tragedy into triumph. On Thursday, Chase’s birthday, the couple will present a $20,000 donation from their foundation to the Greater Waterbury YMCA preschool program to underwrite the tuition for children who need the financial help.

The couple has donated $120,000 to the Greater Waterbury YMCA School Readiness Program the program since 2014. The funds have assisted more than 200 students a year, said Jim O’Rourke, CEO at the Greater Waterbury YMCA.

“We are turning a tragedy into a triumph and not allowing Chase to be remembered for his murder but for how he lived his life,” his mother Rebecca said.

In the harrowing aftermath of their son’s murder, the Kowalskis, like many families of Sandy Hook victims, began receiving unsolicited donations from those moved to express their grief and sympathy. Uncertain of how to proceed, but resolute that she would honor her son for how he lived rather than how he died, Kowalski settled on two venues for what would become the CMAK (Chase Michael Anthony Kowalski) Foundation: pre-school, which helped Chase overcome a speech impediment; and triathalon training for kids. Only the August before the massacre, Chase, whom his mother describes as a boy of uncommon energy and perseverance, completed his first (age-appropriate) triathalon. He was 6 and came in first.

In 2014, the same year they established the scholarship, the couple established the Race4Chase Kids’ Triathlon Program to give children the opportunity to train for a triathlon. Race4Chase is a free, six-week training program for children aged 6 to 12 that provides instruction on swimming, biking and running. At the end of the program, all the athletes compete in a USAT-sanctioned triathlon. In 2019, nearly 1,000 children trained at 25 individual Race4Chase programs run through local YMCAs in Connecticut, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

Precisely why Rebecca Kowalski picked the Waterbury YMCA as the recipient of scholarship money is a strange alchemy of coincidences, memory and what she says is a vision she had from her son the day after his murder.

“He came to me in a vision and said to me, ‘Mama, we’re going to change the world,'” Rebecca Kowalski said. “I didn’t know what that would look like. Then I had absolutely no idea. I just put my faith in God and in Chase and trusted something would happen that would let me know.”

She remembered a drive into Waterbury, passing Chase Collegiate School and her son blurting out “Mama, that’s my school.” Her neighbor, who became the executive director of the CMAK Foundation, attended the Waterbury institution. And a knapsack, with the school’s insignia, also pointed to Waterbury. Still, she was unsure.

Kowalksi said she had what she calls a second conversation she had with her dead son in which she pressed him to send her a sign that she was proceeding in a direction that would keep her family together.

“Adam Lanza shattered my family, a piece of it. I wasn’t going let him shatter my family. So I told Chase, ‘I need a word from your dad,’ and the word amazing came into my head. So I said, ‘OK, Daddy has to use the word amazing so that I know that we were on the same page.'”

When he did, Rebecca said she felt more certain that her notion — about the preschool scholarship and triathalon training — was the right one.

“I would not let my son’s death be the cause of a divorce,” said Rebecca, whose two daughters were in sixth and ninth grade at the time of the school shooting.

Although several Sandy Hook parents channeled their grief into gun control advocacy, the Kowalskis were not among them.

“I knew in my own heart that the gun violence [was] not for me,” she said. “It was way too negative for me. I knew there were certain things I wouldn’t deal with. I still had two girls to raise.”

At the time of her son’s death, Kowalski was overweight. She had never run so much as a 3K. She has subsequently completed 10 triathalons.

“It keeps the crazy at bay,” she says of the triathalon. “It keeps the sadness, the depression, all of it, at bay.”

The Y’s school readiness program serves 200 students daily. The program, which runs 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., helps prepare students for kindergarten, stressing skills that include math, language, social skills and working with others.The program operates on a sliding scale. The cost per student averages $12,000 a year. The Kowalski’s donation, O’Rourke said, is “one of our larger gifts from a foundation. It’s been very impactful.”

Kowalski said the donations and the race are a way to recover the elements of her son she lost.

“A heart filled with gratitude is the best medicine for a broken heart,” she said. “Every time a child passes that finish line, every time a child is not bullied, it’s giving back a piece of Chase….his story is so amazing. I’m just so fortunate to be his mom. and benefit from all the amazing people we have met.”​​​​​​​