Melrose York came around the corner of The Family Y and was thunderstruck by what she saw.
Across the parking lot was Katie York beckoning her with open arms. Melrose's knees went weak at the sight of her daughter smiling from the mosaic mural that adorns the exterior wall of the new adapted aquatics center.
"It was stunning," she said. "I just stopped and started crying. The light and everything was perfect and it just took my breath away. It really is beautiful."
Just more than two years after Katie York passed away in her sleep from complications of the viral encephalitis she was stricken with as a junior in high school, the dream she committed herself to in her recovery has been realized. The Kathryn M. York Adapted Aquatics Pool will be unveiled with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday morning -- which would have been Katie's 23rd birthday.
The first thing people will see every time they visit is Katie's picture adorning her pool.
"It will blow everybody away," said her mother, whose emotional reaction to seeing the mural was repeated by Katie's father, Ron, and brother, Paul.
"There's a light in that mosaic that just captures her. As big as it is, it's amazing that they can do that. I'm going to cry every time I see it for a while because it's that beautiful and it's the essence of her."
This facility is the essence of her. It is a fitting tribute not only to the girl who inspired the fund-raising campaign that made it a reality, but to everyone who embraced the project as their own.
There was something beautiful about the way the community came together to take this initiative from zero to completed in two years. Claudia Collins, the longtime adapted aquatics director at the Family Y, has been advocating for this facility since before she ever met Katie York. But it was Katie's story that lit the spark to make it happen.
Anyone who met Katie speaks of a light that she exuded. When fate dealt her an unwinnable hand, she didn't fold. Instead she found a grace in teaching the young autistic children who would benefit most from a specialized aquatic facility. Her experiences dealing with the constant presence of seizures in her life helped her connect with the people she worked with at the Y. She decided this would be her life's mission.
Sadly, her life was cut too short, but the mission didn't stop. Just three weeks after her death in May 2008, $500,000 was raised to get the campaign to build a pool in her honor.
"It's just shown us that God really had a grand purpose for her life, as short as it was," her mother said. "It extends it. What a blessing for us. Who has the opportunity, when they've lost a child, to have this amazing set of circumstances occur? It's just beyond anything I could have imagined."
Katie's life and story continued to inspire donations that finally topped $1 million and led to the groundbreaking last June. There was $800 donated by the fifth-grade class at Augusta Prep. There was $5,000 raised through a girl's senior project at Augusta Christian. There was a donation from the foundation of a teenage boy in Florida suffering similar effects from encephalitis.
"People got really invested in this along the way," Melrose York said. "We had donors from every walk of life. Everybody involved with this has been touched. There was a sense from everybody that we were going to get it done. And they have. It has met and exceeded my expectations."
A series of events will celebrate the opening of the facility this week. A VIP reception will be held Tuesday night, with the official ribbon-cutting ceremony taking place at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The Yorks will gather today to privately bless the pool. They've collected vials of water from places Katie loved such as her home shower, her grandmother's home, the current aquatics center where she worked and from various friends. The Rev. Greg Hatfield will consecrate the water before the family pours it into the pool.
"We're going to have a bunch of blessed water to add to the pool," Melrose said. "We might just jump in."
Phase II of the project will install a prayer garden at the back entrance of the facility. The Yorks hope to plant a Japanese maple that was given as a gift from one of the children Katie worked with. The centerpiece of the prayer garden will include a water feature with a bronzed panel created by local sculptor Kathy Girdler-Engler depicting swimmers struggling upstream to reach their goal.
The culmination of the project will be emotional for Katie's family.
"It absolutely is bittersweet," her mother said. "It's carried Ron and I through some really dark times over the last two years."
This week marks a fundamental shift and jumping-off point. It's no longer about honoring Katie's memory and dreams, but serving the people Katie wanted to serve.
"It is designed to meet a specific population's needs," said York, who will stay involved as a member of the board. "So it will be less about the tragedy of Katie and more about her legacy and what needs to move forward. That's as it should be. That's the sweet part. The bitter part is that Katie can't be there to see it."
Melrose York quickly corrected herself.
"I know that Katie is there. I know she is," she said. "But seeing that mural just makes me miss her all over again. We're so proud. That's our daughter."
The community should be proud as well for what it has achieved with Katie's Pool.