Charity Kohlman, a Fargo South sophomore who died of a heart aliment, was a source of inspiration and a smile.
By Sarah Coomber, The Forum
Charity Kohlman did not want people to think she was special.
But she was.
She danced with Red River Dance and Performing Company.
She had a smile that lit up Fargo South High School’s halls.
She was a cheerleader.
And she made people laugh.
She rarely missed a day of school until this, her sophomore year.
On Friday Charity led cheers at a basketball game, and Saturday she became a godmother at her 8-week-old sister’s baptism.
But between Saturday night and Sunday morning, Charity’s weak heart stopped. She did not wake up on Sunday, the day she was to be confirmed at Nativity Catholic Church.
Charity and her mother, Judy Kubalak, had known since Charity was 4 years old that she had a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. But Charity refused to let it affect her life, even though at one point doctors considered listing her for a heart transplant.
Charity kept her condition a secret, even from close friends.
“Through it all you’d never know she was sick,” Kubalak said.
Kubalak said she secretly alerted teachers to Charity’s condition, in case something happened at school.
Charity’ school counselor, Laurie Schlenker, said Charity was adamant about not being treated differently.
“She wanted to be known for who she was and what she could do,” Schlenker said.
Charity’s cardiologist, Dr. Rodrigo Rios at MeritCare, said no one knows exactly why the walls of Charity’s heart thinned and its chambers enlarged, or why she died so suddenly.
“She was very stable,”Rios said. “It was quite a shock to us.”
Rios said because Charity was active, productive and happy, they opted against a transplant, because that could have lowered her quality of life.
Schlenker said Charity’s sudden death has affected students at Fargo South, and the school seems quieter this week.
“It was a major shock for a lot of people,” she said.
Staff prepared an announcement to read in every class, and Schlenker visited Charity’s classes to meet with students. She said many visited counselors to talk.
One student said to Schlenker that he thought Charity was very strong to carry the secret of her illness for 12 years and not tell anyone.
Students set up a memorial to Charity in the hall in front of the scholarship bulletin board. They left poems, candy and flowers, which now fill the Kubalak home. They made a giant banner, where they wrote messages to Charity.
Kubalak and Charity’s father divorced before Charity was 2 years old, and Kubalak said at the time she was broke and knew nothing about raising a daughter.
She said she always tried to create good memories for Charity. They often ate lunches at Fargo’s old train depot and made weekly excrusions to the zoo in Wahpeton, N.D. They went camping. They even watched a space shuttle take off from Cape Canaveral.
Kubalak bought a little house in Moorhead, where she and Charity usually slept together. Even as a little girl Charity knew her heart was weak and she said she was afraid to die alone.
“We were more than mother and daughter,” Kubalak said. “We were all we had.”
Kubalak said Charity must have picked her day to leave her family. She waited until her mother was remarried and had a baby, and she had become a godmother.
“She taught me about love, about forgiveness and strength,” Kubalak said. “I’m the luckiest person on Earth. God gave me a glorious 16 years.”
Funeral mass will be at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Nativity Catholic Church.
A Tribute to Love and Strength
Charity Kohlman was a 10th grader at Fargo South High School. She was what appeared to be just another of your average students.
But, she was, in fact, much, much more than that! Charity had just become her 8-week-old sister’s godmother, was a cheerleader for the Fargo South Boy’s Basketball team, and was a member of the Red River Dance and Performing Arts Dance Company.
And, Charity was her mother’s best friend. They created special memories for each other in many ways. Lunches together at Fargo’s old train depot, or taking weekly trips to the Wahpeton Zoo to thrill over the animals that Charity loved to visit.
Her smile illuminated the hallways of the school, leaving those who experienced it glowing warmly. Charity was well liked by her classmates and teachers alike, carrying herself with a graceful dignity few achieve in their lives.
Not wanting to be treated special because of her lifelong heart condition, Charity quietly informed her teachers and counselor of her special circumstances. Her fellow students for the most part were unaware of the condition, as well as the incredible strength it took for her to live with that decision.
And through it all, Charity was as cheerful and happy as anyone. Ever aware of her own frailty, she proudly showed her inner strengths to everyone she met in the way she carried herself. Charity was a fountain of good cheer and good will for all around her.
God made Charity special for all of those who were graced to know her. The joy she lived her life with serves as an inspiration to not only those who knew her, but for everyone. Charity’s love is eternal, and her strength is monumental.
Charity, you will be missed. God keep you.
Charity On My Mind
Fargo mother continues to grieve, but also celebrates her daughter’s life
By Sara Quam, The Fargo Forum
It might be hard to live up to a name like Charity. But her mom credits charity with saving her life and being her soul mate, best friend and confidant.
Although Charity Kohlman died 18 months ago at age 16, her spirit continues to impact her family and friends. She is the inspiration for a fund-raising website, people still draw strength from visiting her grave, and a special card, left behind, let her mother know how much she was loved.
Charity was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy when she was 4 years old. Her condition ultimately caused her heart to pump only 15 percent of the blood into her body. A normal heart circulated 60 to 70 percent of the body’s blood.
“In the beginning it was really hard because I wanted to hold her back,” says her mother, Judy Kubalak. “But I realized I’d rather have her really live and die the next day than hold her back and make her last another year.”
A few conflicts between mother and daughter were over Charity’s activities.
Despite her disease, Charity was a cheerleader at Fargo South High School, danced with Red River Dance, and ran the 9-minute mile in gym, all while keeping her problem a secret from even her closest friends.
“I started telling her phy. ed. teachers so they’d know if she had to stop and rest,” Judy says. “But she didn’t want anyone hovering over her or babying her.”
A major clash came during the 1997 flood. Charity wanted to help sandbag and Judy told her no. “I told her that dancing is one thing, but those sandbags are heavy and it’s really hard work.” Then Charity told me, “What do you want me to do now, Mom, watch while everyone else saves our house?”
The fact that Charity led such an active life, and told so few about her condition, added to the shock of her death. Her grave site was flooded with so many papers and gifts – from a Hooters uniform to large framed pictures – that Judy had to put a covered box at the site to keep everything safe.
Some friends still visit the grave every day and sometimes a surprise visitor will stop by.
That’s why Judy put a journal in the box for people to leave messages. The notes help her as much as those who leave them.
One special letter Judy got was from a student at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. “He told me that he thought she was a wonderful girl. It was so surprising to see that this college kid thought enough about her to write to me,” Judy says.
For what would have been Charity’s 17th birthday in October, Judy bought a bench to set under an oak tree near the grave so people can rest while they write to Charity.
Another part of her birthday celebration was a bonfire party outside of Fargo that Judy held for all of Charity’s closest friends. Twenty-three people showed up and Judy when confessed that she’s been reading everything they leave in the cemetery, they weren’t surprised and didn’t mind.
But Judy and her husband, Gary, not only reflect on the past, they are also looking to the future. They have established a foundation in Charity’s name and have set up a website.
The site is designed to raise money for dilated cardiomyopathy research. Gary created www.charitymae.com, sometimes getting up at 4 a.m. so he could work on it before beginning his rounds as a MeritCare physician.
Charity’s little sister, Summer, 17 months, was baptized the day before Charity died. Charity served as her godmother. Summer is a living, breathing part of Charity’s legacy, because Judy’s own heart condition was discovered after Charity’s was diagnosed.
When doctor’s tested Judy to see if Charity’s condition was inherited, they found a large hole in Judy’s heart. After a 1993 open heart surgery, Judy says she is fine. “She saved my life,” Judy says, and gave her the chance to bear a second child.
The hardest part for Judy has been accepting that Charity is actually gone. “It took me 11 months to realize she wasn’t coming back. If felt like she was on visitation with her dad or something and she’d be coming home.
“Losing her was like having the whole world loving and adoring you and then it suddenly disappears,” Judy says.
Judy stores everything from the cemetery box – and everything else of Charity’s – in Charity’s bedroom.
“I tried to leave everything just how she had it and I’ve added the other things,” Judy says.
Charity made countless cards, bookmarks and pictures for her mom. Judy laughs as she looks over a box of cards. “This one is a couple that says, ‘Sleep with me tonight’ because she was scared a lot and on the back it says, ‘preferably used with Charity Kohlman.”
Judy pauses over a large Valentine card. “This one is probably the most unusual,” she says, “because it was after her death that I found it.”
It was Feb. 13, almost a month after Charity’s death. She noticed some statues on a table that needed rearranging after the Christmas decorations had been put away.
“I just saw It laying there. And it was so unlike Charity to make anything in advance. She was a big procrastinator. I was having a really hard time then and all of a sudden there was this Valentine from her.”
Charity drew the Sacred Heart of Mary on the front and wrote, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I’m so sorry. Thanks for everything. I hope your day is better than any other.”
Judy says through a cracking voice, “I didn’t understand it. But then I got that she was so sorry that she had to die and she wanted to thank me. People don’t see these sorts of signs from their loved ones, but she obviously left one for me. “
Because of Charity’s condition, mother and daughter often talked about death. They both slept with their bedroom doors open and the hall light on. In case Charity had trouble breathing, she would climb into her mother’s bed; Judy and Charity’s father had separated by the time Charity was 1.
Even when Charity was older and Judy was remarried, she needed the comfort of sleeping with mom every once in a while.
Judy has just started closing the door to Charity’s room and still goes in every day to listen to her answering machine recording.
“Charity would say she was afraid to die and that she was afraid I would die,” Judy says. “We always thought we couldn’t live without one another so God would have to lake us together in an accident or something.”
Judy never thought she’d lose Charity so early. “In my mind, I thought if she stayed healthy and active without overexerting herself and if I fed her right, she’d live a really long time. I thought she’d be ready whenever they
(found a cure).”
This Mother’s Day, Judy will miss getting another card from Charity and will likely spend time with her mom, who just moved to Fargo from Wisconsin, Summer and Gary.
Gary says he hopes Judy and Summer develop a close relationship even though he knows Charity can’t be replaced. “Charity was such a well-adjusted kid, I hope Judy and I can give that to Summer.”
Santa bears gifts of kindness during holiday season
By Nicole Phillips, Kindness is Contagious
I look forward to getting out the Christmas decorations each year and lovingly placing them throughout the house.
I usually pull out the boxes and turn on the Christmas music the day after Halloween, but this year I held off until the middle of November. My husband thanked me for my great self-restraint.
As much as I love decorating, I hate un-decorating. The minute Christmas is over, I want everything out of my house. The same frames and figures I so tenderly put upon the mantle, I now throw into a box filled with crumpled up old copies of the Forum newspaper, which act as a nice buffer for my laziness.
When it comes down to it, my stuff is just stuff. Nothing holds much sentimentality because I have the great blessing of still being able to hold onto my little ones. I’m sure as they grow, I will find more meaning in those handmade ornaments labeled “Jordan, age 4.”
My friend Judy has one very special decoration that I’m sure she finds difficult to put away each year. It’s a snow globe, and it was given to her daughter, Charity, from a man who showed great kindness to both mother and daughter.
Here’s Judy’s story:
“I saw a man who played Santa at West Acres Mall in the 1980s who looked just like the storybook. He had that familiar squint that people get when they smile with their eyes.
“My daughter, Charity, was with her dad that holiday, so I skipped the Santa visit. When the next year rolled around. I went to the mall looking for that particular Santa. I was saddened to learn he had retired.
“When Charity was 5, she had been diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. It was a rough year as we learned about additional health complications. I wanted to make her Christmas really special.
“I did some research and found the name and address of that retired man from the mall. I sent him a letter, telling him I was a struggling single mom and that I couldn’t pay him, but I could make him a good dinner and some really good cookies.
“He wrote back almost immediately saying he would be more than happy to play Santa.
“He came to the door with the few gifts I had left on the step for him to put in his big red bag to deliver to Charity. She was so excited to see him, and after she opened the gifts I had left, he pulled out one more. It was a gift from him. It was a snow globe with a Santa in the middle that played “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Charity’s eyes lit up, and she went to place it in her room.
“That night we formed a friendship with a Santa named Palmer Forness that would last a lifetime. Charity continued to write him, and we would exchange Christmas cards every year.
“We met for lunch in November 1997, two months before Charity died. We talked of old times and laughed. Charity put her arm around him and said, “Palmer, I always knew you were the real deal.”
“Charity passed away unexpectedly in her sleep at the age of 16. About 750 people were at Charity’s memorial service, and right there in the middle of this big church sat Palmer.
“When it was time to share memories, no one stood up. My heart was aching as I wondered why no one wanted to speak.
“Then, after what felt like an hour, Palmer stood up. He is rather shy by nature, so this was out of character for him. But he stood up and shared about that first Santa visit and many memories after in such detail that I found myself back there again.
When he was done, everyone else wanted to share, and it turned out to be a beautiful night of memories.
“So as I’ve done every year since my first encounter with Palmer, I unpack the carefully wrapped Santa music box he had given to Charity years before. I wind it up and place it up high for everyone to see. I guess you could say I’ve always believed in Santa, but now I can say he’s my friend.”
You can learn more about Charity and cardiomyopathy, and visit an online support group for people who have lost loved ones at www.charitymae.com.
Love for Charity Kohlman never-ending
By Terry Devine, The Fargo Forum
Not far from the entrance to Riverside Cemetery in South Fargo Is a grave that is marked by much more than a headstone.
It is festooned with photos, stuffed animals, balloons and any number of items. There is a bench where one can sit and meditate or say a prayer.
Underneath the bench, in a box, is a journal where visitors can record their thoughts, and many do.
Once again this Christmas the grave will be decorated with a Christmas tree as it has been for the past two years.
It is the grave of Charity Mae Kohlman, who was a 16-year-old sophomore at Fargo South High School when she died unexpectedly in her sleep Jan. 18, 1998.
The story of Charity and her mother, Judy Kubalak of Fargo, is a never-ending love story, one that touches the hearts of many.
Charity suffered from a condition called cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of the heart that was first diagnosed at age 4.
Judy had Charity when she was 20 years old. They were about as close as mother and daughter can be, says Judy, and moved to Fargo when Charity was 4.
Her first marriage hadn’t worked out, but many years later, when Charity was 13, Judy met and fell in love with Dr. Gary Kubalak, a general surgeon at MeritCare Hospital.
They married in 1995. Judy, who also suffers from a heart condition caused by fluid in the sac around her heart, had just had a baby in November 1997.
It was a difficult pregnancy because of Judy’s heart condition, which developed after doctors diagnosed and then patched an atrial septal defect in her heart in 1994.
Despite the risks of pregnancy, Judy desperately wanted this baby. Charity had named the baby, her mother recalled. “I know what we should name her. We should call her Summer because that’s my favorite time of the year,” said Charity.
So Summer it was.
On the night of Jan. 17, a Saturday, Summer was baptized at Sts. Anne and Joachim Catholic Church. Charity was Summer’s godmother and had promised to help raise the baby if something happened to Judy.
Doctors at Mayo Clinic had told Charity she would never be able to have children because it would too hard on her heart. “I feel like she’s my own baby,” she had told her mother before the baptism.
The whole family went home and ordered Chinese food and then Charity rocked Summer until midnight before heading for bed.
There was a big day ahead on Sunday. Charity was to confirmed.
Judy awakened at 5 a.m. and started to cry. Her husband asked why she was crying. “I don’t know,” she responded. “I just can’t stop thinking about Charity.” She was gone when her mother went to awaken her.
“I was in shock for the whole first year,” Just recalls. “I very seldom left the house. There’s no way I could have made it without my strong faith.”
Judy said it wasn’t until a neighbor couple lost a little girl that Charity’s death really hit her.
Even though the Kubalaks were advised about the risks of having a second child, she had a son, Isaac, on May 24 of this year.
“I used to go to the grave every day. Summer and I would pray and talk to Charity,” says Judy. When we leave Summer gives Charity’s picture a kiss. She calls it ‘Charity’s house.’”
She still visits the grave frequently and is comforted by the fact that Charity’s classmates visit frequently and write in the journal.
“I never was angry with God,” says Kubalak. “I felt how lucky I was to have her for 16 years. I know she’s in heaven, and she’s an angel.”
Charity was a cheerleader and a dancer in the Red River Dance Co. and Summer’s already following in her footsteps, says Judy.
The Kubalaks started the Charity Mae Foundation late in 1998. The purpose of the nonprofit organization is to raise money for research into cardiomyopathy, which is thought to be caused by a virus and results in enlargement of the heart. The foundation’s website is www.charitymae.com. A fundraising event will be held each year.
Meanwhile, Judy says she will continue to visit Charity’s grave with her two youngsters and talk to the daughter she lost but loved so much.
“We used to tell each other that we loved each other when I tucked her in at night,” says Judy. “I still do.”
One couple who lost a child wrote in the journal this fall, “Please hold our baby and rock her for us.”
There’s no doubt in Judy’s mind that that’s exactly what she is doing these days.
Judy’s story: Friends offer their unwavering support
By Nicole Phillips, Kindness is Contagious
I AM OFFICIALLY AFRAID TO OPEN MY EMAIL.
I come from the world of television news. If you didn’t like how I looked, what I said or how I was saying it, you turned to your husband and complained to him. I seldom got to hear feedback from viewers.
Apparently the newspaper world is a whole different game. I never imagined that when I asked readers to write me, they actually would. I am overwhelmed by all the stories of kindness. They are captivating, and each one is filled with real-life characters I want to meet.
And yes, I’m afraid to open my email in front of anyone because I know there’s a good chance it contains yet another story that will bring me to tears.
I have to be honest: I had already written the first several articles for this column because I was sure my inbox would be empty. I’ve thrown out my pre-written stories and instead decided to let you read one of my emails.
This is from Judy, who now lives in Fargo:
“Nicole, I’m sure in a community like ours you are getting flooded with stories of acts of kindness from others.
“One that sticks out in my mind the most is from back in 1993. I was working at the Roger Maris Cancer Center, and I was a single mom. I had been single for 11 years, and my daughter, Charity, was 12 years old at the time. She was diagnosed at the age of 4 with dilated cardiomyopathy.
“She was on medication, and none of her friends knew anything, but the people I worked with did. They knew if I got a call that was urgent, I would need to leave immediately.
“During that time, I needed to get a test on my heart just to see if Charity’s condition was somehow inherited. They didn’t find cardiomyopathy, but they did find a 1 ½ inch hole in my heart. The doctor said I should have it operated on soon.
“The problem was that Charity’s heart function had gotten worse and they wanted to put her through the strenuous testing for a heart transplant around the time I would be operated on. I had just bought a house over in Moorhead six months before my diagnosis. I knew I would probably lose my house now as I had to miss a week of work for Charity’s test and I didn’t know how long I would be out for my surgery.
“Before my surgery, the director of the Cancer Center asked me to stop into her office. There, on her desk, was a bag of cards, She told me to take them home and read them if I could before my surgery. So that night I sat at my table and opened every card with Charity at my side. Every one of those cards had money in it and words of prayer and good will. I had enough money to make three house payments.
“I went into surgery with not an ounce of worry about losing my house. I knew that I was taken care of, not just by God and Charity, but by the wonderful people I worked with, and for that I am eternally grateful.”
Thanks for sharing your story, Judy. I am grateful, too.
Charity: Fostering a Giving Heart
By Roxane Salonen, Family Magazine
It was through a dream, rather than a book or suggestion, that Judy Kubalak of Fargo chose to name her first daughter Charity.
“I’d never known anyone named Charity before, but I told my husband about this dream I’d had, and that her name was Charity in my dream,” she said. “My mom’s middle name is Mae so she became Charity Mae. It was really a God thing.”
She couldn’t have known then how prophetic the name would be. “I didn’t really connect charity with Charity, but I could see her name was so very fitting for her as she grew into the wonderful person she was; always giving, always being kind to everybody, even to the person who didn’t have any friends,” Kubalak said.
Nor could she have known that her daughter’s life would be cut short due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy.
From the moment the diagnosis came when she was only four years old, Charity seemed intent on living life to the fullest, doing the things most little girls want to do — biking, swimming, dancing. In time, it also became important to her to live life with joy and without drawing attention to herself.
In fact, nobody but family knew of the tenuous diagnosis that put Charity’s life at risk; not even her best friend.
The giving and living continued until her last day. It was the night before her church Confirmation, and Charity, 16, had decided to stay up late to cuddle and rock her new baby sister, Summer, and chat with her mother about the events of the next day. When she did finally fall asleep that January evening in 1998, she never awoke.
Reflecting on her daughter’s life, Kubalak spoke with pride and awe over how her daughter moved through the world exhibiting selflessness. “When I had something wrong with my heart, they found out about it because of her heart condition. I had to be operated on, and even though her heart bad gotten worse, she was much more concerned about me.”
The trip that helped jumpstart a heart
Piecing through factors that had helped foster Charity’s giving spirit, Judy recalled a significant trip the two made when Charity was 10 – an adventure to Disneyworld through the Make-A Wish Foundation.
“As soon as we got back, she felt she needed to give back, too, not just to Make-A-Wish but to other kids,” Kubalak said. “She wanted to volunteer at the children’s hospital, to read to the kids, to play with them, to try to make their stay a little less scary and more fun.”
Though Charity was too young to volunteer on her own, the hospital staff told Kubalak that if she were to accompany her daughter, they could spend time with children dealing with terminal illness.
Kubalak remembers a moment during that time when Charity proved her willingness to look beyond her own discomfort to help another. One of the young cancer patients, feeling a sudden wave of nausea, asked Charity to grab a pan. “She hated to see anybody throwing up,” Kubalak said, “but
Charity held the tub for her, and at that moment I realized just how selfless she was in doing that, knowing she would feel sick herself.”
She won’t take much credit for her daughter’s selflessness, believing instead that Charity came into the world exuding abundant charity. As she watched Charity consistently spreading love and light to all she knew, Kubalak recognized she was being taught by her daughter how to live life well as much as the other way around.
Though struggling to make ends meet as a single mother during much of Charity’s younger years, Kubalak said Charity always insisted they give to the United Way, so she’d always reserve part of her paycheck for that cause.
The two also helped serve the homeless and less fortunate at an annual Christmas Eve dinner.
“Charity would help even as a very young girl, even though she had trouble carrying the plates of food, and she helped clean the tables, too,” Kubalak said. “There was so much joy in doing those things together.”
As a teen dance student Charity enjoyed bringing a few dance friends with her to a local nursing home to perform for the residents there, overlooking nerves and any trace of vanity to focus on the giving.
Following Charity’s death, Kubalak continued to give, first through raising money for cardiomyopathy research, which required stepping out of her comfort zone as a natural introvert to organize local benefit concerts and golf tournaments. She also helped establish a scholarship in Charity’s name through South High School, where Charity had attended school. “The person who receives the scholarship doesn’t have to have a 4.0 (grade average). They just have to have the same qualities that Charity did – a smile and a giving heart,” Kubalak said.
And she became involved in the Make-A-Wish Foundation, first as a volunteer, then on the board, where she has served for the past six years.
A Magical Encounter
It was through her work with the local branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation that Kubalak came into direct contact with Joe Keller, 11. Joe’s parents, Fargo residents Joni and Gary Keller, learned their son had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a type of genetic, degenerative muscular disease, when he was in kindergarten.
Though news of the disease was devastating, Joni said, they wanted Joe’s condition to be understood by his peers, so they brought his new leg braces into his classroom at Nativity Elementary to explain some of the changes they’d be witnessing in Joe. “I didn’t want it to be a big deal for them, or for them to be afraid,” she said.
The following year, Joe was offered a dream wish through Make-A-Wish Foundation. An avid fan of Harry Potter books, he asked to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park being constructed by Universal Studios.
“When we first talked to Joe about it, he didn’t really see that he needed a wish,” Joni said. But by the time the part was finished several years later, Joe was ready.
So in the summer of 2010, Joe, his parents and his sister Kayla flew to Orlando, where were met by his aunt, Jane Bjornstad, who shares his affinity for the young wizard characters of J.K. Rowling’s popular series. “He got to be there for the grand opening of the park, along with ten other ‘wish families,’ the day before it officially opened.”
A special surprise of the trip involved the children and their families having a chance to meet nine of the actors from the Harry Potter movies, including the leading star, Daniel Radcliffe. “There was a lot of screaming going on when they found out, as you can imagine,” Joni recounted. “Joe was the last one to meet Daniel Radcliffe, so he got to spend the most time with him.”
Joni said the actors were extremely gracious and genuinely interested in the kids. The visit was followed by V.I.P. treatment at the part. “It was an unbelievable trip that will never be duplicated with the opening of the park and the cast being there.”
Before the trip, the Kellers already had been fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, during which time Aunt Jane had come up with “Joe’s Heroes” as a way to round up friends and family in a collaborative fundraising effort. She even designed T-shirts that participants could wear to show their support.
As a wish recipient, Joe quickly moved from being on the receiving end of a charitable act to wanting to help other children receive a similar gift, just as Charity had. So during the 2009-10 school year, the Kellers joined the “Walk for Wishes” fundraising event and began drumming up local support, including from Joe’s fourth-grade class at Nativity Elementary School.
The contagious nature of giving
That first year, Joe’s Heroes raised $3,700 toward the cause. This year’s donations have garnered nearly $13,000 – enough for two children to receive a wish.
Kubalak said it’s been inspiring to Make-A-Wish folks to witness how Joe’s friends have rallied behind him. “You don’t see this every day. It’s pretty unusual,” she remarked. A plan is now in the works to introduce Joe’s classmates to one of the recipients who will be benefiting from their generosity.
“That’s a story in itself,” Kubalak said of the support Joe has generated from his peers. “They’re learning at such a young age about generosity, and they’re going to meet others who will catch that energy. It’s going to just keep on going like a domino effect, spreading outward to even more people.”
Joni said that for Joe it’s all about inspiring others, but the family has been inspired in turn with the generous response of his classmates. “A parent told me the other day that the kids in his class are becoming great people through their friendships with Joe. It’s so rewarding for Gary and me to see these kids and the way they treat him, the kindness and caring and compassion. It’s unbelievable for kids their age. They’ve really embraced was he wanted to do,” she said.
More than writing a check
Like Charity Mae, one of the things people comment on after meeting Joe is his perpetual smile. Perhaps that’s in part because Joe knows what not all adults have discovered: that giving isn’t just about the money. Beyond reaching into a bank account – which is also necessary, of course – one eventually comes to see that reaching into one’s heart is just as important.
Kubalak learned this best through her daughter, both from her life and her death. It wasn’t until after she lost Charity that she was able to give of herself in a way that was impossible before.
Though it’s not attached to any charitable organization, Kubalak has taken it upon herself to watch for families in the area who lose a child, and when possible, to reach out and share a comforting word or deed that only another mother who understands can offer.
It’s not the easiest kind of giving to do, she admitted, but in the end, it’s the most rewarding.
“Visiting someone who has lost a child is really difficult for me because it makes me reflect back on how I felt when I lost Charity, but it makes it more real to (the other parents). They can see that I’m still living and I’m still able to take care of my kids and go on even though at the time you feel you’re going to die from heartbreak. It helps them keep moving forward on minute at a time, to know there’s a life beyond this, and that it does get easier, even if the pain doesn’t ever completely go away.”
Though not everybody has the chance to see the effects of a life of giving, because of her daughter’s example, Kubalak said she’s been able to witness it firsthand.
To this day, 14 years after Charity’s death, her friends are still reaching back to Kubalak in return for what Charity had given them in her young, brief life. Some make it a point to visit her when they’re in town, and she’s received many wedding invitations through the years. Former classmates continue to visit Charity’s grave site, leaving messages of love and gratitude. One even left a dollar that he said he owed her and had never paid back.
“I look at her life and all the things she taught so many people, and I really think God sent her here for a special and unique reason,” she said. “Sometimes it takes us a lifetime to be able to do all that she did in that short period of time.”
A Tribute to Their Lives
By Tammy Swift, Fargo Forum
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Judy Kubalak uses a garden trowel to carefully scrape black potting soil away from her daughter’s gravestone.
She pulls a stray weed and waters the large potted geranium right next to Charity Kohlman’s monument.
Her daughter’s grave site is like a meticulously kept garden – complete with tiny statues, windcatchers and a garden bench beneath a sheltering oak tree.
It’s also highly personal, conveying much about a Fargo South sophomore who died of a heart condition 14 years ago. The headstone shows a photo of Charity in her cheerleading uniform and is surrounded by mementos, perennials in Charity’s favorite shade of purple and even a beaded necklace from a long-ago admirer.
“I like to give her as much time as I can out here,” says Kubalak. “She was such a beautiful person. I just want people, when they pass by, to and say ‘This is really pretty,’ and to look at her headstone and to get a glimpse of who she was.”
Kubalak represents a growing number of survivors who want to make their loved ones’ resting places as personalized as possible. In addition to the traditional headstone and Memorial Day bouquet, they’ve added figurines, perennials, sports flags, stuffed animals and solar lights to help convey what their loved ones were like in life.
Tom Shafer says he has seen grave sites become more decorated and more personal in his 15 years as Riverside’s cemetery manager.
“I think what happens each Memorial Day is everyone wants to do something special for their loved one, and they try to do a little more than the previous year,” Shafer says.
But the extra décor can create maintenance issues, such as balloons getting caught in trees or decorations blowing across the cemetery.
“Some people object to all the different decorations,” Shafer says. “I try to keep into consideration of all their concerns.”
Some local cemeteries are more strict about adding extra touches than others. At Riverside/Prairie Home Cemetery in north Moorhead, signs caution against use of shepherd’s hooks, rocks, night lights, statues, trees or shrubs.
Others, including Fargo’s Riverside, are more liberal in allowing extraneous décor. Shafer says he finds it hard to enforce every rule when he’s talking to someone who just lost a loved one – particularly a child.
“I just can’t bring myself to say, ‘No more dolls and rattles and things like that,’ because they’ve just gone through something so traumatic. They just don’t need someone else laying on a rule or regulation that would only hurt them further,” Shafer says.
Kubalak appreciates the amount of personalization she’s been able to give to Charity’s grave. She had Charity when she was just 20 years old and split up with Charity’s dad a few years later. From the time her daughter was 4 or 5, she says, it was often just the two of them against the world.
Both also had serious heart problems, which only strengthened their bond, Kubalak says.
Although Kubalak is now remarried and has two children, she has worked to keep her firstborn alive in her heart. She still maintains a website for the Charity Mae Foundation, which is meant to raise awareness of her daughter’s heart condition, cardiomyopathy. Until last year, she paid to run a poem in The Forum on the anniversary of her daughter’s death.
But mostly she concentrates on using Charity’s grave site to express her love for her daughter.
“As a mom who lost a child, you never want people to forget,” she says.
Her daughter’s grave site includes a journal where visitors still pen messages 14 years after her death.
A recent entry reads:
“Charity: You have never met me. I always stop by to say hello. You are so loved by many. God bless you, child. A new friend, 3/5/12.”
Her headstone is covered with special gifts, including pottery pieces from Charity’s father, decorated crosses and multiple figurines of frogs. “We’d go camping and she’d collect them and put them in our tent so they’d have a home,” Kubalak says, laughing.
When weather is agreeable, Kubalak says she visits the site every other day. She places a Christmas tree there in December and appropriate decorations for other major holidays.
One year, she planted 52 tulip bulbs so they would all come up on Memorial Day.
But then the deer ate them.
Initially Kubalak was frustrated that her hard work had been consumed.
“But then I thought, this is what Charity would want,” Kubalak says, laughing. “She would want to feed the deer. She was such a loving soul. She was probably laughing from above.”