One of my favorite things about Atlanta is its philanthropic might. It seems that every Atlantan I know involves themselves in giving time and treasure to help people, animals, the environment, historical preservation - you name it. Georgia is one of the most generous states in the nation, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, with 7.2 billion in charitable contributions in 2012 (the most recent data available). Not bad for a state of 9.7 million people.
Recently, I attended an annual fundraising gala for an Atlanta non-profit called Kate's Club. Several hundred well-dressed guests enjoyed dinner, dancing and a silent and live auction to raise money for Kate’s Club programs. Over the last 12 years, this organization’s mission has been to “empower children and teens facing life after the death of a parent or sibling. Most importantly, perhaps, Kate’s Club provides space and time for kids to be with other kids who understand what they’re going through.
I’ve never lost a parent, but my father lost his mother at the age of nine. Sitting in the gala audience, it struck me that my father didn’t have an organization like Kate’s Club to help him get through the unimaginable pain and confusion of losing his mother.
On June 3, 1962, Betsy Bevington and her mother, Dell Rickey, were killed when their Air France flight crashed at Orly Air Field outside of Paris, France. 104 other Atlantans perished with them. The group had spent the previous month touring great art museums of Europe as part of their effort to found Atlanta’s first major arts center. Ignited by the tragedy, Atlantans and people all over the country donated money in their memory. Today, the arts organization they died working to build is the Woodruff Arts Center.
On the 40th anniversary of the crash, GPB produced a documentary called The Day Atlanta Stood Still. It features my grandfather, Milton Bevington Sr., who witnessed the plane’s explosion from the Orly terminal where only minutes before he’d kissed his wife and mother-in-law goodbye. His ticket was for the next flight home. In those early days of commercial air travel, Betsy argued that they take separate flights so that if one airplane crashed their sons still had a surviving parent.
While working through his own grief, my grandfather also watched his three young boys, ages 7, 8 and 9, grapple with losing their mother and grandmother so suddenly and so tragically. Inspired by his sons’ experience Poppy, as I call him, tried to start an early version of Kate’s Club. He had successfully raised millions of dollars for Atlanta organizations such as the Georgia Conservancy, the Boys Scouts of America as well as his alma maters M.I.T. and Harvard. But his friends didn’t see what he saw in such an organization and it never materialized. Shortly before he died in 2010, Poppy told me it was one of the great failures of his life that he couldn’t convince his friends and fellow Atlantans to fund a non-profit organization to support grieving children.
Instead, the legacies of the Orly Air Crash are the Memorial Arts Building on the Woodruff Center’s midtown Atlanta campus. The French government also donated a statue by their most celebrated sculptor Auguste Rodin to honor the Americans who died on French soil. Today, Rodin’s The Shade stands along Peachtree Street on the front lawn of the High Museum of Art surrounded by a granite memorial engraved with the victims’ names.
Unlike my grandfather, the time was right for Kate Atwood. Kate lost her mother to cancer at the age of 12 and, in 2003, she launched Kate’s Club. Like my grandfather, grief taught Kate that death is also about survivors. As she writes on her website, “every corner in life is a new opportunity to have a positive, exciting experience; the wealth of those experiences is measured by the people who surround you during them.” Today, Kate’s Club provides camps, a clubhouse, activities and resources to hundreds of metro Atlanta children and their families.
My father’s too old to be a member of Kate’s Club, but he’ll always be a member of the club of children who lost parents too soon. My grandfather wasn’t able to heal his son's 9 year-old broken heart, but Kate’s Club is helping many children like him. Atlanta is a better place for efforts like Kate’s and individuals who dedicate themselves to building organizations that serve our community. It’s thanks to them that long-held dreams like my grandfather’s turn into ideas whose time has come.
Visit a bereavement camp for kids coping with loss here.