On a stark black canvas, a white bird escapes from the bars of a gilded cage.
Below it, painted in delicate handwriting, reads a message central to Kara Haynes’ life: “Let no one cage who you were born to be.”
The image of a caged bird set free was an important symbol for the 17-year-old Center Grove High School student. She used it in her artwork. When designing a logo for the nonprofit group she formed to help victims of depression and suicidal thoughts, she chose birds escaping.
“She felt like she was caged in with depression,” said Cathy Gawarecki, her mother. “When she was doing art, she was feeling freedom.”
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Haynes died unexpectedly on Jan. 27, leaving her family and friends behind to grieve for the loss. She died after complications from surgery to clear blood clots in her lungs and leg. She had been recovering from a severely broken leg when doctors discovered the clots.
While her physical presence is gone, the legacy of love and compassion she built during life will live on.
The Project Hope Foundation, the nonprofit corporation she formed in August, will continue to reach out to teens and adults who are hurting from mental illness. Making sure that Haynes’ mission is ongoing is the best way loved ones know to honor her.
“This was the worst thing that any of us have ever gone through,” Gawarecki said. “But we have peace knowing she was happy when she went. She was helping. She was teaching. She was being the doctor she wanted to be.”
The day after Haynes died, Gawarecki was sitting on the floor in her daughter’s room trying to find certificates and other documents. Looking over on the shelf, she spotted the small black bound book.
Haynes had kept a journal, where she shared her thoughts with herself.
“Her counselor wanted her to get all of her emotions out. But he also wanted her to get out everything inside of her that she liked about herself,” Gawarecki said.
On the first page, Haynes included a list of all of the parts of life she loved. Inspirational quotes — one per page — came from her favorite books and movies.
One entry, dated from May 8, 2015, describes how she started arriving at school 40 minutes early each day to watch the sunrise.
She acknowledged how odd it might seem for a teenager to do that, but wrote how it helped fortify her own faith.
Seeing her daughter’s words, Gawarecki can hear her voice again speaking directly to her.
“This has been like a gift from heaven from her to me,” she said.
In the wake of their sudden loss, any comfort is welcomed for Gawarecki and her husband, Tony Gawarecki, as well as Haynes’ brothers, Dexter and Skyler.
Beginning of tragedy
The roots of the tragedy stretch back to October, when Haynes fell down the stairs at school. She splintered her leg, breaking multiple bones and requiring surgeries to repair ligaments and tendons.She couldn’t put weight on the leg while the screws and retention plates implanted during surgery healed. A second surgery was required in December.
But in late January, Haynes started complaining that she was having difficulty breathing. A trip to the doctor turned into an urgent trip to the hospital. A scan found multiple blood clots had formed in her lungs, as well as clots all the way up her injured leg.
Blood clots are a risk to people who have had surgery. Inactivity leads blood to coagulate inside the veins, and those clots can then break off and reach the heart, brain or lungs, causing death.
The American Society of Hematology reported the clots such as these affect 900,000 people each year in the U.S., killing close to 100,000.
“They told her, ‘This is what causes sudden death in people. You’re sitting there talking to us, and 10 seconds from now, you could be gone,’” Gawarecki said. “That was when she asked us to start calling everyone we could, and texting people how much she loved them.”
Haynes never lost consciousness, and even as surgeons rushed her into surgery, she remained awake, since the doctors were concerned she would not wake up if put under.
As the surgical team was starting the procedure to try and clear the clots, Haynes was even singing to them. But a nurse later told Gawarecki that as the team was working, she turned and uttered, “I can’t do this,” and passed out. She never woke up again.
“They kept working on it, but finally they said she was gone,” Gawarecki said. “Then, it was like a scene from a movie: I was in denial, this was a bad dream, this isn’t happening. It’s a scene I won’t get out of my head for a very long time.”
A single mother for much of Haynes’ life, Gawarecki had a unique bond with her daughter. That connection was only intensified when Gawarecki was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008.The disease had a jarring effect on Haynes, her mother said. The then 9-year-old learned much too early about the realities of death, and that her mother could be taken away.
“She always had that in the back of her mind, that she could have lost me. God spared me, and she was a very thankful teenager for having me in her life still,” she said. “It made her mature very quickly, beyond what normal kids went through.”
At Haynes’ funeral, she spoke about their connection.
“I told my husband that I never understood why our bond was so close and why we spent so much time together, until now,” Gawarecki said. “God put that unbreakable cord between us that no one could sever. It’s still there — just a lot longer now that she’s in heaven.”
on to help othersThough only a junior at Center Grove High School, Haynes was already taking college-credit courses. She was an editor of the school’s student publications and was involved in Girl Scouts and Best Buddies.In her spare time, she worked at Honey Grove Daycare.
But her all-consuming passion was working with other teens hurting and in need of help. As a teenager, Haynes struggled with addiction, self-injury, eating disorders and anxiety.
When three of her grandparents died in the same difficult period of time, she fell into a dark depression. Problems with substance abuse exasperated her feelings.
With the assistance of her mom, as well as medical doctors, family counselors, teachers, family and friends, Haynes was able to manage her mental illnesses.
But she also relied on her faith to help her. She had given her heart to Jesus as a 6-year-old, and that carried her, Gawarecki said.
“Even though she struggled through life, she loved God,” she said. “She trusted him, even when things were really dark and she felt like nobody but me loved her.”
Her faith, her drive and her own personal experience culminated in the formation of the Project Hope Foundation.
She researched how to start her own nonprofit organization. When it was time to talk to the bank about opening an account for the group, she handled the discussion. Gawarecki was along solely because Haynes was a minor and needed an adult’s signature.
“I didn’t do any of it,” Gawarecki said. “She saw the need for mental health awareness in middle school and high schools and college, and in adults. She allowed me to be a part in creating all of this.”
Haynes wrote the organization’s mission herself. The goal was to provide hope to those who felt all was lost, to erode the stigma surrounding mental health illnesses in young adults, and to ensure no one they work with becomes just another suicide statistic.
Foremost was “to let the lonely know they are not alone,” she wrote.
Haynes envisioned the group as a lifeline to teens who were drowning in anxiety and pain.
“She had a real passion for wanting to help young adults who were hurting,” Gawarecki said.
On multiple occasions, other teens struggling with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts called Haynes in the middle of the night.
One incident stands out in Gawarecki’s mind. Haynes had woken her up at 11 p.m., asking her to drive her to a friend’s house. The girl had just erased herself from all social media, and left a single message on Instagram: “Goodbye.”
Haynes saw what was happening, and insisted they go to the girl’s house.
“Kara took those things seriously because she believed that if a child says they are hurting or wants to hurt themselves, they mean it,” Gawarecki said.
They pulled up, and Haynes told her mom to stay in the car. She spoke to the girl’s mother, and then went in to go see her friend.
“When she opened the door, she was in bed curled up on the bed,” Gawarecki said. “She felt like no one cared and that no one would help her.”
Haynes didn’t try to be a counselor herself. Instead, she armed those struggling with the resources that had helped her: the names of local therapists, facilities where they could get help, phone numbers to call.
“They knew they could trust her, and she would not say anything to anybody about them,” Gawarecki said. “I never had a doubt she would accomplish what she was planning.”
Haynes was laying the foundation for a career that she thought could help other people, Gawarecki said. She wanted to be a clinical psychologist, and start her own mental health clinic.Project Hope has about 25 members, who would meet to discuss ways to raise funds to help people suffering from addiction, depression and other mental illnesses.
She created teal and white marbled bracelets with the words, “Refuse to be a statistic,” to sell for $1 around school to raise money. Orange T-shirts were designed to generate money and awareness as well.
This year, she was planning a fundraising walk to bring more attention to the issue of mental illness.
Family and friends have vowed to carry on that vision and organize the event later this year, Gawarecki said. The Project Hope Foundation will also be applying for 501(c)3 status.
Haynes envisioned the foundation spreading to schools and communities throughout the state, and beyond. Chapters at local schools would all work together to generate money for mental health issues.
“I have peace that I know where she’s at. She did her job. She did what she was supposed to do when she was here,” Gawarecki said. “If that means losing her so that other people live and be happy, it’s worth letting her go, as hard as that is to say.”
ct of helpingDays before her death, Haynes had a conversation with her mother that Gawarecki keeps replaying in her head. She reminded her mom that she was an organ donor.Gawarecki brushed the comment aside. But in the wake of tragedy, she had honored her daughter’s wishes. Surgeons were able to recover skin tissue, bones, corneas and heart valves.The transplant organization presented Gawarecki with a special medal commemorating Haynes’ donation, set in its own velvet box. They also provided a lock of Haynes’ hair.
“They will let us know who receives them. I don’t know if we’ll know the people, they may not want us to know their names, but at least we’ll know someone got her corneas or her bone marrow. She’ll live on,” Gawarecki said.
How to Help
The Project Hope Foundation, the nonprofit group that Kara Haynes founded last year, will continue on its mission of helping teens and adults struggling with mental illness.
Anyone wishing the support Project Hope or becoming a sponsor can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or the Web site theprojecthopefoundation.com
Donations can also be made to Project Hope at any Fifth Third Bank location.
Remembering Kara Haynes
Home: White River Township
School: Junior at Center Grove High School
Family: Parents, Cathy and Tony Gawarecki and Scott and Mary Haynes; siblings, Dexter and Skyler Haynes, Michael Murray, Jordan, Josh and Justin Gawarecki.
Activities: Founded the Project Hope Foundation to aid teens and adults struggling with mental illness; was an editor on the publication staff at Center Grove; worked at Honey Grove Daycare; was a member of the Girl Scouts and Best Buddies; belonged to Stones Crossing Church.