It's almost impossible to describe the roller coaster of emotions Reed Cowan has been though over the past year. Likewise, it's impossible for those who haven't experienced a tragedy like Cowan did to fully comprehend how much he's been hurting.
On April 23, 2006, Cowan's only son, 4-year-old Wesley, died after accidentally becoming entangled in a backyard swing set. Cowan, a popular television reporter with KTVX, went into near isolation as he tried to cope with the tragedy. His world turned dark with no seemingly no hope of finding a light at the end of the tunnel.
But now as the one-year anniversary of Wesley's death approaches, the grieving father has found a way to have some good come from the most painful event of his life.
Wednesday, Cowan left for Kenya, where two schools will be dedicated in his son's name on Monday, the anniversary of Wesley's death.
Cowan prefers to remember April 23 as the day Wesley "graduated."
"We were able to turn pain into purpose," he said.
Ironically, it was just two days before Wesley's death that Reed was watching an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show featuring guest Craig Kielburger. Kielburger is founder of the Free the Children foundation, a group that helps children all over the world. Cowan said he was moved so much by the show that he decided then to someday do something similar to what Kielburger had done.
It was during his time of mourning that Cowan remembered the Kielburger appearance and realized now was the time to act.
"I had to get control of the ship of grief. I told myself, 'I'm either going to die or I'm going to do something with this,"' he said.
Cowan said he was overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and support he received after his son's death and realized that not every child is so lucky.
"My son got a hero's goodbye. Yet somewhere on the other side of the world it's not proportionate," he said. "I know somewhere on the other side of the world people are dying who don't get to see the age 4. I've got to turn this around and balance the scales a little bit."
Cowan founded the Wesley Smiles Coalition, which soon partnered with Kielburger's Free the Children. The initial goal was to raise enough money through fund-raisers and donations to build a school in Kenya and dedicate it in Wesley's name.
"Through yard sales, private donations, fund-raising drives in elementary schools and lots of wonderful people on the corporate level ... almost $40,000 was raised," he said.
The money was more than the group expected to raise, and the donations haven't stopped.
One group of nurses cashed in all of the sick hours they had saved up and donated the money.
Alawna Eldredge, an elementary school teacher in Roosevelt, launched a "pennies for pencils" fund-raising campaign. Students were asked to donate pennies to buy pencils for the students in Kenya. Students soon started bringing their pillow cases to school filled with pennies. The school raised enough money buy hundreds of pencils. Eldredge will be among those who travel with Cowan to Kenya for the dedication.
The Jewish Community Center was also key in raising money, as was Kielburger himself. Cowan said Kielburger interrupted a trip to India with former President Bill Clinton to speak at one of those fund-raisers in Salt Lake City for free and then turned around the next day to resume his trip with Clinton.
"The support we had was amazing," Cowan said.
The Wesley Smiles Foundation and Free the Children were able to raise so much money that Cowan, who originally planned on opening one school, will be dedicating two schools next week. Furthermore, every school will be completely stocked with supplies and a library and the town will receive a water treatment facility and wash rooms.
The fund-raising has been so successful that Cowan now plans on opening at least one school in some part of the world every year on Wesley's "graduation day" until "the day I die," he said.
One single donor recently paid for a Wesley school to be built in Sierra Leone, Cowan said. In 2008, he plans to travel to China for the dedication of a fourth school.
The schools will be named after Wesley. In Kenya, the dedication plaque on the building will read, "Schule ya Wesley Cowan." Under the school's name will be the motto of the foundation, "Be Happy Every Day."
"(Wesley) was the happiest, most cheerful boy. Every day he would tell everyone to, 'Be happy, every day,"' Cowan said.
For Cowan and Wesley's mother, Stephanie Martinsen, the foundation and the dedication of schools has been a way to help not only others in need but also themselves.
E-mail: [email protected]