Hillsboro. Oregon’s Alasdair Pullan raising money for swim lessons sponsored by Colin’s Hope

Jana and Jeff Holst of Austin, Texas, know all too well that life can change in an instant. Their adorable four-year-old son, Colin, drowned while playing at a busy pool in plain sight of lifeguards, family, and friends. After their loss, Colin’s family was shocked to discover that drowning is the number one cause of accidental death for children under five. It didn’t take long for the Holst family to transform their tragedy into a movement. The family was driven to start a charity to raise water safety awareness to prevent children from drowning. Through Colin’s Hope they have definitely succeeded, distributing water safety packets and educating thousands of children and adults.  They have also been able to completely eliminate the number of near drownings and drownings of children in some of their targeted zip codes. “We felt compelled to do everything in our power to stop another family from being torn apart by drowning, a preventable death,” said Colin’s mom, Jana Holst.

Reminding parents that drowning is preventable, a Colin’s Hope billboard in Texas

It may be surprising that, in the haze of grief and sorrow, a family could think about taking action to help other families across the country. When you have just buried a beloved family member, how do you even start to think about paperwork and websites and board meetings? As J. Worth Kilcrease, a licensed professional counselor and bereavement specialist, explains it, this is a fundamental aspect of mourning. “This family is using the moment of tragedy as a catalyst for good,” Kilcrease said. “This is a part of the grief process where we rebuild our lives, and finding a way to honor those that have left us is an essential part of that process.”

And the Holsts aren’t the only family to turn the loss of a child into a vehicle for nationwide change. In December 2008, Carson Starkey’s parents, Scott and Julia, received the call that shattered their world. It was from the County Coroner’s office. Their beloved son Carson, who was just off to college to pursue his dream of becoming an architectural engineer at California Polytechnic University, was gone. During a Fraternity initiation ritual, he was compelled to drink large quantities of alcohol and passed away from acute alcohol poisoning with a blood alcohol level of .40. Even worse, the Starkeys learned that several of the people present with Carson that night could have saved him after he lost the ability to save himself – but they didn’t follow through. Since Carson’s death, the Starkeys have been on a mission to educate young adults nationwide about the signs of alcohol poisoning and save lives. They don’t want even one more family to suffer the loss they endured.

Aware Awake Alive on campus at Cal Poly

The Starkeys have dedicated themselves to the nonprofit they founded in Carson’s memory, Aware Awake Alive. The Texas couple has also advocated for legislation to create Good Samaritan laws allowing teens to seek help for a friend in trouble without suffering legal repercussions themselves. Clearly, they have their work cut out for them. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that binge drinking causes 80,000 deaths in the United States each year. Specifically, 1 in 3 college students are binge drinking and there is a death on a college campus every 12 days resulting from Alcohol overdose.  According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, teenagers are the most vulnerable to death as a result of alcohol poisoning, as many do not understand its effects on the body and drink too much in a short period of time. About half of the teenage deaths from alcohol poisoning occur after drinking alcohol for the first time. In addition to the advocacy, Aware Awake Alive provides a free, online toolbox to empower students and a non-judgmental awareness and social media campaign.

Carson and his dad, Scott Starkey

Perhaps helping others or working to ensure that senseless losses don’t happen again, even – or especially – when we are at our lowest, can restore us to feeling human and connected. We can see this at work in Ann Curry’s call to perform 26 Acts of Kindness, which went viral with the hash tag #26 after the Newton elementary tragedy. Thousands heeded the call, giving of their time and money in an effort to do 26 nice things for total strangers. From comforting a child alone on a plane by letting him play Angry Birds on your phone to purchasing 50 new bikes for children in need, our nation reached out to give and receive that human touch. It is no surprise that the nonprofit community would be any different. “Some of the most significant organizations we have came into existence on the heels of a tragedy,” said Kilcrease. “The whole aspect of meaning-making is something that you don’t read a lot about in the popular media, but it is becoming very well recognized in professional circles as a crucial part of the rebuilding process.”


Carrie Collins-Fadell

Taking Root: Innovation From The Nonprofit Community

January 8, 2013