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Swimming in Katrina's Memory

The Burke Centre Swim Club donates swim-a-thon money in honor of a former teammate who passed away two years ago.

A rare form of cancer took a Burke Centre Swim Club member away from her teammates in 2004. Two years later, the team continues to honor her memory by donating their swim-a-thon money to a cause that helped their teammate through her illness.

Katrina Nelson was just 15-years-old when she died. She swam for the Burke Centre Penguins and looked forward to swim season every year, said her mother, Lila Nelson. After Katrina became ill in 2003, her parents heard about a Web site that could help keep Katrina’s friends and family updated throughout her hospital stays.

“What happens during a crisis is communication becomes a big problem,” said Lila Nelson. “Her first hospitalization was five weeks long, and I had to stay with her since she was a minor. You really don’t have time to make 25 phone calls a day to let people know what’s going on.”

The Web site, called CaringBridge, is a nonprofit that provides free Web pages to people, in order to keep friends and family updated on important life events. Burke Centre swimmers have donated more than $15,000 to the organization in the last three years, said Jessica Sachariason, spokeswoman for CaringBridge, all in memory of their friend, Katrina.

“We decided to honor her and donate to CaringBridge,” said Denise Herb, the mother of Katrina’s best friend and former Penguins teammate, Devin. “She was an absolute dream of a person. We still have a picture of her on our fridge.”

THE WEB SITE allowed Katrina to communicate with her friends, letting them know when it would be good to visit her, and telling them how she felt. Katrina’s parents updated the site frequently, and Katrina used it primarily to communicate with her friends. Lila Nelson said the swimmers benefited from the site, since they were able to interact with their friend as best as they could. Katrina once said that the team was “a little penguin family,” said Lila Nelson, “and that was really true.”

“The girls would go visit her in the hospital,” said Kim Spina, president of the Burke Centre Penguins swim team. “The community really cared.”

The swim-a-thon was something Katrina enjoyed, said Lila Nelson, which is another reason why she and her husband, Mark, are so appreciative of the swimmers’ efforts to keep Katrina’s memory alive. Each year the couple helps with lap counting and other duties at the event, and they are thankful that the money contributes to the Web site that helped ease their stress of communicating during such a difficult time.

“It means a great deal to us, that people remember what a great teammate she was and how swim team was a special part of her life,” said Lila Nelson. “She was an amazing person who showed more courage than I could even imagine.”

This year, the Burke swimmers raised $8,000 at their swim-a-thon July 8. They gave $6,000 to CaringBridge, and $2,000 to an organization called Burke Cares. That organization, also a nonprofit, helps provide items to families who need a little extra help. One thing that the organization provides is pool memberships to local children, said Spina.

“Our kids need to know that it’s not all about them,” said Spina. “There are kids just like them who want to be on the swim team.”

The swim-a-thon has focused on giving back to the community for seven years, said Joan Osheke, the incoming swim club president. Swimmers solicit donations, either flat or per lap, to raise money to donate. Before Katrina’s illness, they gave to cystic fibrosis. Whatever the cause, Spina said the point is to get the children involved in their community. The swim club parents want them to understand what it means to help others, and the swim-a-thon is a fun way they can do that.

“For most of them, it’s just a fun night,” said Spina.