Christian Brady took a moment to climb to the top of Mack’s Teepee at the Park Forest Elementary School playground Saturday morning and give a humble wave to the community who helped make the project happen in memory of his son, Mack Brady, who died last year.
With a tear in his eye, a knot in his throat and wife, Elizabeth Brady, by his side, he thanked the students, faculty and staff, and Park Forest community for keeping his son’s memory alive at an appreciation breakfast and dedication ceremony at the school.
“This whole experience has been humbling,” said Christian Brady, who is also the dean of Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College. “It’s encouraging knowing that everyone is behind us in the grieving process, but allows us to reflect and celebrate.”
Mack was 8 when he died from a bacterial infection on New Year’s Eve.
When students came back from winter break last school year, they were shocked and saddened by the news, said Mack’s third-grade teacher, Terri Del Real.
“As a teacher, it’s heart-wrenching to go through that and have to tell students that kind of news,” Del Real said. “But they had the most positive attitude and wanted to be a part of something that would always remember Mack.”
With the anticipated teepee project completed, students such as siblings Lexi and Ben Graupensperger said it’s the best part of the playground.
“We like it so much because we can play on it, and it means something than just a jungle gym thing,” Ben, 8, said as he climbed the teepee with dozens of other children.
“It’s a lot of fun to hang on with your friends,” Lexi, 10, added. “We can come here and have fun and know that it’s all for Mack.”
Mack’s two best friends — neighbor Adalee Wasikonis , 12, a Park Forest Middle School student, and John Cobes, 9, a former classmate — spearheaded the project.
When Adalee heard the news about Mack, she contacted Park Forest Elementary Principal Donnan Stoicovy about building a teepee in Mack’s memory.
The teepee idea was inspired by the last project the trio worked on together in Mack’s backyard.
“He was doing a unit on Native American studies in school, and we got together to make a teepee out of sticks and stuff,” Adalee said. “I think we heard of the tree being planted and mural in the school, but felt like it wasn’t enough.”
John added that being outdoors and crafting things like teepees and playing with Legos were some of his favorite things to do with Mack.
“It’s nice that we were able to accomplish a lot and see it all come together,” John added.
A teepee set was shipped in from Europe at the beginning of the month and erected at the school playground two weeks ago by the State College Area School District’s Physical Plant, Stoicovy said.
Mack’s Teepee is an upright, triangular structure with a net between three poles for kids to climb on.
By the spring, Adalee and John came up with ways to collect money to fund the project, which cost about $7,000, said Eve Cobes, John’s mother. A big fundraiser was collecting Box Tops For Education. For every box top cut out and handed into the school, 10 cents was given back to help fund the project.
In total, the school collected more than $11,000, Cobes added. The additional money will go toward purchasing a sign for the teepee that will read “Mack’s Teepee,” and two park benches that will have “Park Forest Elementary School” inscribed on them.
“It’s a way to enhance the playground,” said Morgan Wasikonis, Adalee’s mother.
Throughout the year, a tree was planted outside the school in memory of Mack, in addition to a mural on the second floor wall of the building.
And while the projects were made a reality by community collaboration, Stoicovy said the students are to thank the most.
“The kids worked extremely hard on this,” Stoicovy said. “From the brainstorming process to helping to raise money, it was all them, with a lot of support from the adults.”
Christian Brady also set up a scholarship fund in the late winter for the Penn State men’s soccer team. Brady said the fund has $150,000 in the account.
Since the age of 5, Mack wanted to be a professional soccer goaltender, Christian Brady said.
When the scholarship fund first started, $50,000 was raised in the first six days.
“No matter what new project we embark on, it’s just one more step in the healing process,” Stoicovy said.