by Kim Johnson
November 26, 2008
For Michelle and Chad Bush ’95, summer isn’t about lying on the beach, vacationing in exotic places, or taking time to get away from it all. Summer is prime fundraising time. It’s about golf scrambles, car washes, pink lemonade, driving the Barbi Jeep in parades, and educating kids about the importance of philanthropy.
It’s about remembering Reilly.
This is one of the most difficult pieces I have ever had to write.
It’s also the simplest.
I’m sitting in my office, 36 weeks pregnant with my first child, having spent much of the last nine months trying to imagine the face of my little girl. Then I try to put myself in the shoes of Chad and Michelle Bush and wonder how on earth my husband, David, and I, would ever deal with losing our little one.
On the flip side—the reason I was drawn to this story in the first place—I get to write about a journey of hope, courage, and absolute enthusiasm that has become the Reilly C. Bush Foundation.
Chad and Michelle Bush describe themselves as "just us," a young couple living in a Midwest town trying to do their part. They remind me a lot of my husband and me—young professionals still trying to understand the world and leave it a little better off than it was before they passed through it.
They love their kids more than anything.
Together they are changing the way communities think about service and philanthropy. They are shaping the next generation of leaders into civic-minded citizens.
And, make no mistake, they are in this together.
It all started as a way to help them get over the tragic loss of their little girl.
Chad and Michelle met after Chad graduated from Wabash in 1995 and began teaching and coaching at Crown Point High School in northwestern Indiana. Their story is infamous—he was a teacher, she was a student. Although, "I wasn’t his student," Michelle is quick to point out.
"It’s a famous story in Crown Town," Chad laughs. "They love it. I had to ask her dad if I could date her when I went to her graduation open house. Her dad’s a cool guy, so it turned out okay. I got really lucky."
After dating for three years, Chad and Michelle got married. A year later they had their first child, a daughter, and named her Reilly.
Chad left teaching.
"We had a three month-old daughter. Michelle was finishing her education, and we were broke," he explains.
"In education I was always a square peg in a round hole. Education got sick of me and I got sick of education. It had served its purpose in my life and it was time for me to look for a different challenge."
Chad began working for BioMet Inc., a medical device company that specializes in trauma and spine hardware.
Five years later, along came baby number two. Reilly liked the name Gabriel for a boy and Sophia if it was a girl. Mom and Dad agreed and named their new son Gabriel. Baby number three followed in March 2008, Sophia Reilly.
Fast-forward to June 2008 in a small Italian restaurant in downtown Valparaiso, Indiana. Chad is chatting about his time at Wabash, since that’s what I’m really here to do. He had been chosen as one of the 39 under 39 currently being highlighted on the College’s Web site.
Chad tells me of his love of the College—from the nostalgic feel to the welcoming of the faculty and staff to the academic rigor—his time as a football player and connecting with coaches, and the effect of the Gentleman’s Rule. But it’s the next two hours of our conversation that have me on the edge of my seat and the verge of tears.
I ask Chad how the Reilly C. Bush Foundation was born.
"Our life was moving in what I would consider a fairly normal direction for any family on February 7, 2007," explains Chad. "Reilly was five and a half. Gabe was three months. Reilly had the sniffles."
"We took her to the doctor at noon with a stomach ache and thought she had the flu. And by one o’clock in the morning the next day, she had passed away.
"They think it attacked her heart muscle. They think whatever virus was in her system attacked what could have been a biological frailty that never would have been diagnosed or recognized in any way, shape, or form. It all happened in 45 minutes.
"I was the first person to hold Reilly when she came into the world, and I was the last to hold her when she left."
Another Way to Cope
The couple was devastated. Neither could eat. They couldn’t get out of bed. They could not even talk. Chad recalls, "I thought I would only live a couple months. I didn’t want to do anything."
They were referred to a local support group for parents who had lost children. They were surprised at what they found.
"There were people there who had been 10, 12, 15 years removed from los-ing a child and they were still lamenting and we were looking at it like, Oh my god, we will never survive this. If I have to be sad, I’ve never been sad ever like this. I can’t live my life in such melancholy."
So they began looking for another way to cope.
At the time of Reilly’s death, friends and others in the community had made generous financial donations to the Bushes. They ended up with about $10,000 but didn’t need it for anything. So they thought, "What would Reilly want us to do with it?"
Like many young girls, Reilly loved American Girl dolls and had an aunt that worked at the American Girl store in Chicago, so Reilly had every little girl’s dream collection of dolls and accessories.
But Reilly was also very generous. It wasn’t unlike her to give away her toys to those she thought needed them more than she did.
"We thought she might want to give dolls to girls who weren’t feeling so good. It was really that simple," Chad says. "We thought maybe it would make us feel a little bit better too."
While working with nearby children’s hospitals to put their project in place, they talked with a banker and a lawyer about setting up a fund for the donations. Around that time, Michelle told Chad, "I don’t want to just do a fund. I want to start a not-for-profit."
Against the lawyer’s advice, they set out to start their foundation. Chad wanted nothing more than to help Michelle feel better.
"I’d have cut off my leg if that was what Michelle needed to get out of bed every day. So if she wanted to start a not-for-profit, that’s what we were going to do."
Just days before the official start of their organization, neighborhood friends of the Bushes convinced a local car wash owner to hold a fund-raiser. In one day they raised $11,000.
Soon other friends and business owners came to Chad and Michelle asking what they could do to help.
Days later, they signed the not-for-profit paperwork. The Reilly C. Bush Foundation became a reality.
Additional fund-raisers followed—a Parents’ Night Out attended by 700 people, a special production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown by Chad’s sister’s theater company in Chicago, a celebrity prom, and a golf outing.
The $20,000 became $40,000, and within seven months Chad and Michelle found themselves with $100,000. Now, in less than a year and a half, the Foundation has raised more than $250,000 and continues to grow.
"We Could Help Others"
Only six weeks after losing Reilly, the Bushes were heading in to children’s hospitals in Chicago to give away their first American Girl dolls.
Chad holds back tears as he recalls giving away the first doll.
"We met a little girl, Abigail, who had been diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma and was basically given no chance to live. She had such spirit. She reminded us a lot of Reilly. She drew us a picture—it had Reilly as an angel and her with no hair. She named her doll Reilly. It made us feel like we’d get through it. I think we realized we could somehow help others."
The Bushes began seeking other ways the Reilly C. Bush Foundation could help benefit the lives of children.
They continue to work with the children’s hospitals in Chicago, giving away "Stupendous Packages" (which include American Girl dolls). In addition, they sponsor a learning and literacy program, as well as a program that teaches children about procedures or illnesses they are encountering.
But for Chad and Michelle, it was important that money raised within a community be given away in that community.
So the Foundation has a scholarship program that supports children’s enrichment activities in the area. Reilly loved to dance, swim, draw, paint, play the piano, and tumble—the Bushes know how costly extracurricular classes and lessons can be. The scholarship program provides support for children in low-income families, financing kids’ participation in dance class or football or other programs they would otherwise not be able to afford.
"We had one little girl who nominated her friend for a scholarship because her friend’s parents had lost their jobs," Chad explains. "She helped raise funds for her friend’s scholarship, and then got to give the gift to her friend so they could continue dance together."
As the Foundation continued to grow, parents asked how their children could get involved and give back in Reilly’s memory. The Bushes’ neighborhood even put together a pink lemonade stand for the kids to raise money for Reilly.
The Pink Lemonade Stand idea took off and has become a part of the Foundation’s summer tour. The Stand travels to local farmers’ markets, festivals, and other community events as a way to raise funds and awareness about the Reilly C. Bush Foundation and its programs.
Chad and Michelle realized the need to educate the community—especially youth —about the importance of philanthropy and civic engagement. They began searching for ways to help fill that gap.
They have developed several partnerships with local youth service organizations teaching philanthropy. The curriculum, which will be taught in Valparaiso schools for credit this spring, teaches the history of civic service and why it is important to get involved in one’s community and beyond.
The program also has a fundraising and matching grant component where the youth involved hold a fund-raiser and learn how to write a grant for matching funds through the Foundation. Then they get to solicit their own grants from other youth and decide who will receive the monies they have raised.
"When the opportunity arises, they present the gift to the other children," Chad explains. "So it’s a hand-shake between givers and receivers. It’s been highly effective."
Michelle recently kicked off the Giving Circle, which targets children ages 4 to 12. They go on a field trip to a local not-for-profit, they host a fund-raiser, and the older students work on writing a grant. Then they get to give away all the money they raised.
Chad and Michelle see a lot of potential in the educational piece of their Foundation and hope one day to reach beyond their northern Indiana and Chicago region.
Chad says, "We look at all we have here and all the things we have been able to do and it’s hard to believe it’s us."
When One Child Helps Another
Chad and Michelle’s excitement about the Foundation is contagious. Chad says the best part is "seeing the light bulb go on when one child helps another.
"I don’t care what anybody else says—the kids are getting it. Kids are out here giving their time and they’re going to get to give a gift, and the kids they give a gift to will in turn give a gift to somebody else."
The hardest part?
"Sometimes it doesn’t give us time to just miss Reilly.
"Some days we just wish she were here. Other days we realize that in leaving she left a legacy that has given us the opportunity to do so much for so many others that it’s almost as if she had planned it all along. And if you knew her, you wouldn’t put it past her."
I have seen the tragedy of losing a child destroy marriages, but Chad and Michelle’s seems stronger.
"I’ve just learned to love my wife and respect her in a whole new way because I don’t think I gave her enough credit before," Chad says. "She’s been the strength in our family and the strength of our organization. She’s the most remarkable per-son, and if I didn’t realize that before, I guess my daughter sure helped me figure it out."
I save my most personal question for the last: "What advice do you have for a soon-to-be-parent like me?"
Michelle responds almost before I’ve finished the question: "If they want waffles at 2 a.m., just give them waffles at 2 a.m. It doesn’t matter."
"We get so hung up on making our children who we think they should be that we forget that the most important thing to do is love them," Chad says. "The one thing that we don’t regret—the one thing that’s helped us through the tragedy and helped us be able to do what we’ve done—we do not regret one moment we spent with Reilly."
Michelle whispers, "It’s simple. Simple."
And it really is.
Learn more about the Reilly C. Bush Foundation at http://reillycbushfoundation.org