Katie's gift

The 8-year-old boy refused to go back to the pool at The Family Y. Not without Katie York there to greet him.

Then one morning the boy told his mother he was ready to go swimming.

"I saw Katie," he said.

Where?

"In my room," he answered. "She was all glowy and sparkly, and she said I should go back and if I ever needed to talk to her she would be here."

Katie York died weeks before in May, just 13 days shy of her 21st birthday. But her influence on the people who knew her and the community at the Wilson Family Y in Augusta continues. Her spirit is not only still drawing the children she helped back to the pool, but she's inspired a fundraising push to build an exclusive facility for adapted aquatics dedicated in her honor.

"You can see it with the momentum with this pool," said Melrose York, Katie's mother. "Danny McConnell (the Family Y president) told us he's been in this business for 26 years and he's never seen anything like this. So something's going on."

That something is what Katie prayed for every night once she started working with autistic children and other special needs clients at the Y after recovering from viral encephalitis. In the first week after her death, a movement to build "Katie's Pool" raised more than $500,000 -- a third of the estimated $1.5 million goal.

"God has put the whole thing together from the beginning," said Claudia Collins, the adapted aquatics coordinator at the Y who has been pushing for the specialized facility since she started there in 2002. "We've had many miracles, and Katie was one of them."

What was a back-burner idea behind the Y's 150th anniversary drive to build a handicap-accessible baseball field in Augusta gained momentum with the backing of the people Katie inspired with her courage, determination and joyful attitude.

"Upon Katie's death, the people who loved her and knew this adaptive aquatics pool was her passion have kind of rallied around it with amazing success so far," said Millie Schumacher, the communications director at the Y. "It bumped it up to the top of the priority list, and hopefully by the end of 2009 we will have this pool and the Miracle League field to serve the disabled population in our area."

KATIE YORK STOOD OUT as an athlete and student as a junior at Augusta Christian Schools. A member of the Aiken-Augusta Swim League for 10 years, she was named all-state in the Georgia Independent Scholastic League in 2003-04 and won a 2004 state title in the 100-meter backstroke. Her coaches presented her with a leadership award for being "an example for all swimmers to follow."

On Jan. 24, 2005, Katie returned to school after suffering a couple of days with a minor case of the flu. She felt fine until her advanced math class, when she was stricken with uncontrollable seizures.

"That was it," said Ron York of the viral encephalitis that attacked his daughter. "Why, we'll never really know."

For 35 days, Katie was kept in a drug-induced coma at the MCG Children's Medical Center. With the careful cooperation of her neurologists and intensivists, she was brought out of her coma before more long-term permanent damage could set in.

She spent three more months in the rehabilitation center at Children's Hospital of Atlanta before returning home in time for her 18th birthday June 2. The seizure disorder remained a constant part of her life, but it was something the family was determined to handle.

"Always significant seizures, but we'd get over it and move on," her mother said. "She had a pretty significant learning disability, but nothing we couldn't work on."

After relearning the rudimentary things such as the alphabet and arithmetic that her brain had lost from the seizures, she returned to complete high school with a different kind of future. But every bit of her joyous personality remained intact.

"The essence of Katie was there," Mrs. York said. "It was her intensified."

"It challenged her to an incredible degree, but the goodness and strength of will and heart and everything that was her was preserved," said Paul York, her older brother.

KATIE GRADUATED from Augusta Christian, and her health and outlook consistently improved. The seizures that once came at a pace of 50 or more a month were reduced to only a handful. But the bright girl with the infectious smile suffered from occasional bouts of depression.

"One of Katie's problems was that she was receiving so much but not able to give," said her father.

That's when Katie was introduced to Claudia Collins -- a.k.a. her pool mom. With her swimming background it was suggested that she volunteer to help in Ms. Collins' adapted aquatics program to work with kids who suffer from autism and other disabilities. It was a serendipitous match that quickly blossomed from volunteer work to a paid job.

"She came in with a light in her that was so strong that the kids just flocked to her," Ms. Collins said. "Such a sweet, sweet spirit about her that glowed from within and without. We always said she was our angel."

The benefits were mutual. In helping others, Katie discovered a purpose for her life. And despite all of her own issues and the unappealing ketogenic diet she was forced to live with, she was content.

"Seeing your daughter happy -- and she was happy in the pool working with those kids -- that was a big thing for us," said her father. "She was proud of what she was able to do. The Y has just been a blessing to us."

With a firm life plan, she studied physical therapy and special education in the two or three classes she'd take a semester at Augusta State University.

"She was doing what she was supposed to be doing," said her mother. "She was only 20, but if you watched her work with these kids there was no doubt in your mind that she'd found what she wanted to do with her life."

PEOPLE TYPICALLY SENSED something special about Katie.

"Her nurse once said, 'I just want to touch you and grab you. There's a god-light in you or something,' " Mrs. York said. "She was always a precious child, but for three and a half years she was just this light that people were just drawn to her. It just was uncanny."

That attraction most notably manifested itself in a unique bond between Katie and the children she worked with.

"She could get kids to do things that nobody else could," said her mother.

Melissa Feldhaus sought Katie out specifically to work with her 9-year-old son, Taylor, who shared the same health history and neurologist.

"His experience with the water was ankle deep," said Ms. Feldhaus. "He had to be able to see and feel the bottom of the pool and he would not interact with or touch anyone else."

But Taylor gravitated toward Katie, and almost immediately she had him putting his face in the water and floating on his back. At one point he started playing football and wrestling with other people in the pool. His mother turned to Ms. Collins and said, "This is not my son."

"Katie was able to get him to do things I thought he'd never be able to do," Ms. Feldhaus said.

"Our eyes were just glued on the transformation of this child," Ms. Collins said. "She brought many miracles."

Paul Markwalter, 15, suffers from autism and seizure disorder and would never look in the eye or interact with therapists. Then he met Katie.

"It was almost like they were kindred spirits," said Paul's mother, Kathy. "He looked at her and responded to her and interacted with her like nobody we'd ever seen. It was a breakthrough. She saw beyond my son's disability and into his soul. They understood each other on a level that you and I could never have."

MONDAY, MAY 20, was a day many will remember for the severe hail that rained down in the sunshine around Augusta. Sarah Schwartz, 4, remembers staring at the sky while riding to school with her mother and seeing an angel going up into the clouds.

"We knew it was Katie," Ms. Collins said when the little girl told her what she'd seen.

The night before Katie had gone to bed like every other night. She called her mother in about midnight and they prayed together and said their goodnights.

At 9 a.m., Mrs. York went into her daughter's bedroom with her morning medication and found Katie lying face down. She had likely had a seizure during the night that flipped her over.

"And she was gone," her mother said. "There was no indication."

The couple of weeks before her death had been blissfully seizure-free. Katie went with her parents and boyfriend, Michael Tonry, to Disney World the week before because her birthday wish was to reclaim another childhood memory lost to the seizures. After that came a weekend trip rafting on the Chattooga River with cousins.

"She had the greatest two weeks of her life and just could not have been happier," her mother said. "She saw everybody she wanted to see that she loved, which is very comforting to me. It was like time sped up. She got everything she needed in those two or three weeks."

The end, in a way, mirrored her brief life.

"It was like those almost 21 years were packed with so much impact on people and just her bright, joyous self," Mrs. York said.

Since Katie's death, the Yorks have been inundated with welcome stories of what their daughter had meant to people and the influence she had on the lives of so many families. One man at the funeral couldn't speak through tears but presented them with an American flag from U.S. Congressman Paul Broun that had flown over the Capitol. One autistic boy who worked with Katie repeated her birth date over and over as his tribute. Another child picked out a Japanese maple for her. A doctor had a tree planted in the holy land in Katie's honor.

"The funeral and visitation were eye-opening to me," said Paul, who was 15 years older than his sister. "Just seeing the number of people who came up, and every wheel-chair bound person or autistic child that was there. It was phenomenal."

KATIE'S DEATH, in the normal ways, shattered the YMCA community and many of the kids she worked with. Taylor Feldhaus has a hard time doing anything in the indoor pool without her.

"He just stands there and says her name," his mom said.

In another way it brought everyone together for the purpose of honoring their angel with a tribute that will serve the community for years. The dreamed-about adapted aquatics center that Katie and Ms. Collins prayed for every day got a boost with $500,000 in donations almost overnight.

"From zero to that number in that period of time is just amazing," said her father.

Friends of Katie's and the Family Y are selling light blue silicon bracelets with "Katie's Courage" etched into them for $5 to raise money and keep her spirit alive. A fundraiser with 700 invited guests from the various communities Katie touched will be held Thursday night at a private home.

"We're always told that every gray cloud has a silver lining, and she is our silver lining and she is still pushing this even in heaven," said Ms. Collins. "She's opening doors we never would have been able to open."

The proposed Kathryn M. York Adapted Aquatics Center will house a saltwater system pool that will be kept at a temperature of 88-90 degrees. The dedicated non-chlorine environment can service a larger and more diverse group of disabled clients from stroke victims to veterans suffering from traumatic injuries. There is no comparable facility in the region.

"It's very appropriate because she was the epitome of what aquatics could do to help people," Ms. Collins said. "She came back from what was a death experience and was able to function and help others. She showed how the water was a gift from God, and this facility itself is a gift from God."

And with the momentum that Katie has inspired, her presence continues to be felt every day.

"I think she's here," her mother said. "I know she's around with this pool thing. I know she is. It's comforting for me to hear she is still around and helping people. Good for you, Katie York."

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

DO YOU WANT TO HELP?

- To inquire about Thursday night's fundraising event or to get more information about how to contribute to the Kathryn M. York Adapted Aquatics Center, call Millie Schumacher at The Family Y, (706) 922-9606.

- Friends of Katie York and The Family Y are selling blue silicon "Katie's Courage" bracelets for $5 to raise proceeds for the adapted aquatics center. To buy a bracelet, stop by The Family Y at 3570 Wheeler Road or call (706) 922-9622.

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