Immediately after the death of his daughter, Chris Dawkins knew he had to keep 19-year-old Brooke’s spirit alive.
On Feb. 23, 2014, the UCF student was hit by a truck while crossing Alafaya Trail at Gemini Boulevard in the early morning. Suffering from a severe traumatic brain injury, she was declared brain dead and removed from life support on March 5, 2014.
While Brooke was in the hospital, the money that was raised to help her recover was unfortunately put aside, so Chris decided to put the money toward creating the BrookeStrong Foundation to educate others on the importance of organ donations.
Through the nonprofit organization, the family chose to personally fund $500 in scholarships for seniors in cheerleading and yearbook at Boone High School, where Brooke left lasting impacts in both departments.
Cindy Hutsell, varsity cheer coach, and Renee Burke, yearbook adviser, guided Brooke through high school all four years and developed a love for her that the Dawkins family couldn’t part from.
Hutsell and Burke were each asked to choose a graduating senior who they thought embodied the spirit, personality and hard-working qualities of Brooke, and then present the scholarship awards at a banquet held this past spring.
“Brooke was one of those girls I knew I could depend on,” Hutsell said. “She kept her grades up, she never missed an event, she had a fantastic attitude and she loved to laugh.”
With this in mind, Hutsell chose senior Lauren Garcia for the $250 cheer scholarship because she felt Garcia not only exemplified Brooke’s qualities and talents, but also proved to have overcome an obstacle in her life.
Garcia lost her cousin in a tragic car accident in 2011, which inspired her family to start the charity Always Wear Your Seatbelt. Hutsell said that although it was tough on her, Garcia didn’t let the accident stop her from what she loved to do. Instead, she took it as a reminder to treat every day like it’s her last.
“Being one of the first recipients to receive this award is incredibly humbling and is one of the most special forms of recognition that I have ever received,” Garcia said. “It has also made me more self-aware regarding the impact my actions have on others.”
Although she did not know Brooke personally, Garcia said she would see her around campus, always with a smile on her face, so full of life.
“Brooke is remembered for many things, but her smile and laugh were contagious. I hope my personality resembles hers, and I believe we both value the gift of humor,” she said.
Burke said it was also an incredibly hard decision to choose one student for the award. In the end, she felt Sarah Combs embodied Brooke’s intelligence, humor and dedication.
“Like Brooke, she balanced her editor responsibilities with a varsity sport, and worked tirelessly so that neither suffered,” Burke said in her speech at the banquet. “In true Brooke spirit, she was completely willing to help others, but didn’t want to bother anyone to help her.”
Combs said she felt completely honored to be compared to somebody like Brooke.
“I’m not going to lie, I cried a little bit because I did not expect it at all. … It kind of hit me a little hard because it meant a lot that [Burke] picked me,” she said.
Going forward, Chris said there will be a committee and application process for the scholarships every year.
The Dawkins still hope to find a recipient for another scholarship they created last year, one that would help students who have experienced a serious brain injury or aneurysm, but still wish to pursue their education.
Due to the specific criteria applicants must meet, Chris said the scholarship has yet to receive an application, but he is confident that the right person will come along.
According to the BrookeStrong website, applicants must be a Boone High School senior who has been accepted to a college or university, a half-time student who has been accepted to or attended UCF, or a good-standing member of an affiliated chapter of Kappa Delta Sorority or Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity.
Brooke’s liver, heart, kidneys and pancreas were donated after her death, and Chris said the family has established communication with the woman in Wisconsin who is now living with Brooke’s heart. The Dawkins write to her from time to time, and Chris said she is extremely appreciative for Brooke’s decision to save somebody else’s life.
“When we knew it was over, it was an easy decision to decide what to do at that point,” Chris said, “but I know for a lot of people it isn’t.”
Rachel Stuart is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @RachSage or email her at RachelS@CentralFloridaFuture.com.