By Bella Butler COMMUNITY AND ENVIRONMENT EDITOR
BIG SKY – When Harbor deWaard woke up in the morning, he would go to his costume box and select which superhero ensemble he would wear for the day—Spiderman and Captain America were among his favorites. The 5-year-old boy didn’t wear his superhero costumes because it was Halloween or because he was going to a birthday party, they were simply what he wanted to wear. His mom, Candice Brownmiller, says it was because he was actually a superhero, he just didn’t know it.
In January of 2015, deWaard died suddenly and tragically. Every year since his passing, the Lone Peak High School National Honor Society has organized Harbor’s Heroes Run, a 5k color run in deWaard’s honor. This year, on May 17, in spite of challenges instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic, NHS estimated a turnout of 95-100 participants who ran in the sixth annual 5k, which was restructured to comply with social distancing.
With every intention to continue a community-favorite tradition, NHS pivoted from the formerly planned large community race to a virtual version. Participants ran a suggested 5k course offered via the Harbor’s Heroes website in small groups of family and friends, while also sharing photos to the website. Even in the absence of the colored powder that usually decorated the course (and the runners) in past years, tie dyed capes and vibrant superhero masks made for a spirited display of recognition for a deeply missed friend and son.
“I worry about Harbor’s spirit getting lost out there,” Brownmiller said, expressing gratitude toward NHS for finding a way to still host the run despite the circumstances.
One year ago, Brownmiller was hiking through Virginia in the midst of a downpour on the Appalachian Trail on the same day as the run. It was the first she’d missed since deWaard’s passing. She pulled over on the side of the trail, sheltered under her backpack cover and listened through her phone as her friend, Jackie Robin, ran through the park in Big Sky passing the call around the event so community members could connect with Brownmiller while celebrating deWaard.
Be it distance or a global pandemic, nothing has stopped Brownmiller from being a part of the event every year and she says in some ways, it’s been a source of healing. “It’s a great way for me to see the community to get back together to honor him.”
Part of the effort to keep deWaard’s spirit alive in the Big Sky community is the Women in Action scholarship in his name. Each year, the scholarship supports local recipients’ experiences at a summer camp. In past years, registration fees from the run have contributed to the scholarship fund. This year, donations collected on the Harbor’s Heroes website for the scholarship totaled $2,500.
The scholarship often supports students who were friends of deWaard’s, and Brownmiller thinks it’s a special thing for them to receive a scholarship in his name. Prior to this year’s event, the NHS’s Education and Outreach program worked with deWaard’s former class, now in fifth grade, to write poems to express their memories of deWaard. Many of the poems, which are available on the Harbor’s Heroes website, feature phrases that recount deWaard’s compassion like “lover of friends” and “I will never forget him.”
Ruth Blodgett, an NHS member, said that the experience of working with the students on their poems was an emotional one, even over the digital platform, Zoom. “When those kids [who remember deWaard] get to explain what he was like, you can tell that they really cherish him and cherish his memory,” she said. “I think it’s very helpful for them to heal when reflecting on who he was as a person.”
Dr. Kate Eisele, the NHS advisor, said that the treasured community event is also an opportunity for NHS students to practice the core ideals of NHS: leadership, service and character.
“Connecting with the memory of Harbor allows students to reflect on life and their place in the world and the character they want to project to the world,” she wrote in an email to EBS. “Harbor inspires us all to be giving, caring and joyful in our lives.”
Many of deWaard’s friends shared ways that they remember him in their lives, like playing outside and dressing up in a superhero costume. Brownmiller has her own ways of remembering, too. Brownmiller and deWaard used to work together at the Big Sky Community Food Bank, where deWaard would work hard knowing he could earn a treat if he did well. Now, as an employee at the food bank, Brownmiller enjoys working at a place where she can feel connected to her son.
Every year when the run rolls around, Brownmiller believes it’s something deWaard would love, and she says she knows he’s there in spirit. She can picture his big cheeks opening up for a smile, happy to see all of the friends he cared for so dearly, dressed up as the superheroes he loved, the superhero they all remember him to be.