by MATT MARN
What began in tragedy for a Rockford family soon grew into a life-affirming memorial. Now the city can remember young Chiara Howard’s selfless nature and warm smile for generations to come.
Chiara’s Quiet Grace Gazebo was built to honor the life and memory of Chiara, who drowned in Lake Michigan in July 2008. The gazebo, which sits on the campus of Roguewood Elementary School, was dedicated with a ceremony held last month.
“It’s not time to be licking wounds, but time to celebrate her life, and be inspired,” said Carrie Wysong, Chiara’s mother.
The gazebo has eight windows, each representing one of Chiara’s strongest virtues: humbleness, sincerity, joyful, compassionate, considerate, loving, creativity and kindness.
Wysong said the landscape around the gazebo was planned by a professor and a student at Calvin College. She said all plants and flowers in the surrounding area are native to Michigan, and there will also be a garden for butterflies—a sign of new life.
“Classes in Roguewood and other schools can learn about plants and wildlife, and all of it is specifically designed towards Chiara and her love of learning,” Wysong said. “I feel what really matters in life are the simple things. The gazebo has no bells and whistles, no neon lights. It’s just simple. That’s Chiara.”
Wayne Visbeen of Visbeen Associates was the designer and architect of the gazebo. Visbeen said, while he didn’t know Chiara, Wysong came to him and told him the story of her daughter’s passing.
“She knew we create a lot of things based on people’s emotions,” Visbeen said. “We just started sketching and drawing. There were a lot of ideas with windows and stained glass that really harkened back to her daughter. I sat down with her and came up with some original sketches, and created the vision that everybody could draw onto.”
Wysong said as people enjoy this gazebo, she hopes they are encouraged to remember and be thankful for who and what they have.
“I hope more people can come here and meet. When I see kids in the gazebo, playing or reading to each other… words cannot express the relief and gratitude I felt,” said Wysong. “Chiara’s third out of four kids. Right from birth, she loved to smile and smile back. She gave tight hugs, and her smile brightened the room. Right then, we knew she was special.”
Wysong said Chiara spent five years going through school with the same classmates, and she always was thinking of others.
“Whether it was flowers or a picture she drew or baking cookies to take to a friend’s house, it was rare for Chiara not to feel moved to help,” she said. “When you lose someone, you realize how much of an impact they had on your life. How kind, loving, caring they were. Chiara was that comforting, selfless child.”
Wysong said, soon after the tragedy, friends and family members surrounded the family. In the days that followed, there was a lot of talk about Chiara’s purity and grace, and how quiet she was in her kindness.
“That’s how we came up with the phrase, ‘Chiara’s Quiet Grace,’” she said.
The road to the finished gazebo was not an easy one. Wysong ran into roadblocks coming up with the funding required by the deadline.
“We had a benefit in the first year,” she said. “I thought that would take care of it, but we didn’t even come close. It took close to two years to get full approval from the school board. Then the people in the community and the church, and local businesses stepped forward. People had read stories in the papers about Chiara, and they helped out.”
At one point, Wysong said it was looking as if they would have money enough for a scholarship, but not for completion of the gazebo.
“To be honest, I find the gazebo being built much more comforting,” she said. “Every piece of it is tailor-made to her and her artwork and spirit.”
Mike Cuneo, assistant superintendent of finance for Rockford Public Schools, said Wysong did a wonderful job planning the project.
“I never met Chiara, but my kids went through Roguewood,” Cuneo said. “I know the family, and Carrie. The passion she had for the project showed in the results. Any time you can achieve a goal like that, it’s really fulfilling. It was a big group, but she spearheaded it and saw it through. We are all very appreciative of the gift given to the school.”
Now completed, Wysong says the gazebo is meant to be a happy memorial.
“We have a grave site for Chiara, but this gazebo is about life, a celebration,” she said. “Life is for the living. Be in the moment, enjoy who and what you have. Focus on the present and the future, not the past.”
As Chiara was very active in sports and other activities, Wysong also said she is planning to start Chiara’s Quiet Grace Foundation, a fund to help students participate in activities they may not otherwise.
“The foundation will be to give kids an opportunity to participate in sports, or art or music,” she said. “This will let them be on the basketball team, or to get that guitar. This will help kids find their place, their joy; to be who they can be.”
The quote atop the gazebo reads, “Where trouble melts like lemon drops,” a line from the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as performed by Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Wysong said the family got his CD when they were in Hawaii together, and after Chiara’s passing, they found the song once more.
“It has gotten us through,” she said. “It’s her song.”
Now, Wysong said she has made it her mission not only to educate others on water safety, but to honor Chiara’s warmth and kindness.
“She’s very passionate,” said Cuneo of Wysong. “It’s very important with something like this; you need a champion to continue on. She’ll really work hard to keep the memory alive.”
Wysong realizes that in time, Chiara may not be remembered as quickly. But the most important thing, she said, was the message Chiara still can teach us all.
“People don’t know how another person’s day is,” Wysong said. “Maybe they had a bad day… It can do so much to just smile. You have to look at the good, the positive. Cherish what you have.”