Dream will become reality

Just more than a year after Katie York's death and on what would have been her 22nd birthday, the Wilson Family Y held a ceremonial groundbreaking Tuesday to begin building an adapted aquatics center in her name.


A yearlong fundraising effort has generated $1.1 million in donations so far, enough to trigger the board to authorize borrowing the remaining balance for the $1.5 million "Katie's Pool" project through the organization's reserve funds.

"This effort was God's will at work," said Danny McConnell, the president and CEO of the Family Y on Wheeler Road. "It's remarkable to see this love for Katie and her family transform into this."

Mr. McConnell said construction will begin as soon as the design work and bidding is complete, and he hopes the facility will be ready to open next spring.

"Eleven months from now is a very realistic ribbon-cutting date," he said.

Ms. York was an accomplished member of the swim team at Augusta Christian Schools before coming down with viral encephalitis during her junior year. Though seizures became a regular part of her life, she recovered enough to volunteer and then join the staff of Claudia Collins' adapted aquatics therapy programs at the Family Y. Before her death in May 2008 at age 20, she proved to be an inspiring instructor to young children suffering from disabilities such as autism who were reluctant to participate in the aquatic therapy.

Her inspiration led to an outpouring of community support to build the specialized facility after her death.

"We are a giving community," said Mayor Deke Copenhaver, a former board member at he Family Y. "It's amazing during the midst of this economy that people can come together for this."

The fruition of the fundraising campaign led to an emotional day for the York family. At Tuesday's ceremony on the future site of the Kathryn M. York Adapted Aquatics Center, the first Katie's Courage Award was presented to her parents, Melrose and Ron York.

"It's an amazing wave of love," Mrs. York said. "I am without speech, and that's rare for me."

Said Mr. York: "What I think about is these wonderful friends who donated time and effort and money. I don't know if I can put into words what it means. We feel very, very grateful because so many people don't have what we have: affirmation that our daughter meant something."

Eight members of Ms. York's family, including her parents, brother, grandmother, uncle, aunt and cousins, made the first shovel scratches in the hardpan dirt behind the Family Y where the pool will be built.

"To see it happen all in this year is a phenomenal feeling," said Paul York, her older brother. "I'm glad to see that this program that meant so much to her gets to go forward. It's such a worthy thing. It gives her such a lasting place on Earth."

Ms. Collins has run the adapted aquatics program for seven years, and she started drawing up plans for a specialized facility in 2006, about the same time Ms. York began working with her program. The 40-by-60-foot saltwater pool -- maintained at 88-90 degrees -- will serve a broader base of clients who for medical reasons can't tolerate the chlorine environment of the existing pool.

"Katie said, 'I'm going to help you build it, Claudia,' " Ms. Collins said Tuesday. "And she helped us build it."

The pool will include a 42-foot ramp into the shallow end. There will be handicapped-accessible changing rooms, including a lift system to assist people who use wheelchairs. Therapy rooms and offices are also part of the plans.

The building's exterior facade will include a mosaic tile mural of Ms. York smiling and extending her arm.

"We wanted to tell Katie's story over and over and over again so that the light of that story keeps on," said Rosie Messer, a fundraising co-chairwoman for Katie's Pool along with Beth Pollock. "We want people to know why that face is there and what she accomplished."

Her mother said Ms. York would probably have been "embarrassed by all the fuss" of Tuesday's ceremony but would be thrilled that her shared dream with Ms. Collins will be become a reality.

"This place took Katie from damaged, sick and depressed to feeling like, 'I do have some worth and I can do something,'" her mother said. "For her to realize her worth and that she had a purpose is the biggest blessing."

The movement to build the pool in Katie's honor has buoyed her family with remembrances of their daughter and the impact she made in people's lives in her 20 short years.

"That brief moment when someone says, 'I knew your daughter and she helped my child,' I can't tell you what a blessing that is," Mrs. York said.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

KATIE YORK died in May 2008, 13 days before her 21st birthday. She had suffered from viral encephalitis, which caused seizures. Her work with children in the adaptive aquatics program at the Family Y helped many families and inspired others.


Woman's courage, spirit inspire community to rally for aquatics center

Community support helps the Family Y stay on track with its adaptive aquatics center plan