BRANFORD — Six months after Ben Callahan, 10, died in an accident on the Branford River while playing with his two brothers, the Callahan family continues to move forward, upbeat and smiling.
Scout Callahan, 9, his brother Cooper, 12, their dad, Dave, and their mom, Paula, have organized fundraisers to give back to their community, which supported them in the aftermath of Ben’s drowning in the river’s strong currents.
In addition, Scout and Cooper, with a little input from their dad, wrote about what they have learned from the experience and why they wanted to bring him to the annual Walter Camp Football Foundation events to be held Thursday and this weekend in New Haven.
The boys’ 99-word composition won the Walter Camp youth essay contest. This means they and their dad and mom will be on hand for the welcome dinner, the brunch Friday morning, the All-American youth clinic Friday night and the dinner banquet Saturday night. The foundation’s representatives also will provide the three guys with tuxedoes and the four of them will have lodging overnight Saturday at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale.
The boys began their essay by noting what their dad is teaching them: to look people in the eye when shaking their hands and “to see true needs around us.”
The goal, they wrote, was “how to change mourning to momentum. We lost our brother, we didn’t lose our family. We lost our teammate, we didn’t lose the love to play.” They were referring to Ben’s excellence on football and basketball teams, with Cooper, 13 months older, alongside him.
The boys also noted in their essay that the family last year started the Ben Callahan Memorial Foundation, including a youth board, “so as brothers and with our friends we could impact the community around us in Ben’s name.”
The essay concluded with this ambitious sentence: “When we attend Walter Camp as players in 10 years, we will already have made a difference, thanks to our dad.”
During a group interview this week in the library of Branford’s Walsh Intermediate School, where Cooper is in sixth grade, Dave Callahan said, “The ideas behind the essay have been ruminating for the last six months.”
He noted, “We get asked all the time how we’re doing.” He turned to Scout and asked him: “How are we doing?”
“Good,” Scout replied. “We’re getting better.”
Their father said when an event such as what befell the family last summer occurs, “It can destroy you, it can define you or it can develop you. Our faith in Jesus anchors us, so we weren’t going to be destroyed. And I didn’t want us to be ‘the family that lost a 10-year-old boy.’ I want people to think: ‘There’s the family with two amazing boys who are gentle and kind and are a part of the community.’”
He said it comes down to the ability to look at and deal with bad situations. “Everybody has bad situations. Ours happened to be big and public.”
Callahan recalled somebody saying to him at the start of this year, “It’s a good thing 2017 is over. Let’s hope 2018 is better.”
“I said: ‘I don’t think 2017 was a bad year. We had a horrible situation in the middle of July. But we had people reaching out to us from all over the world.’ The things these kids have learned! How to reach out to others, how to be compassionate.”
After Ben’s death, people began dropping off gifts and money for the family.
“We realized it was their way of grieving with us, of supporting us,” Callahan said. “But we didn’t want money. We thought, ‘This is not where our hearts are; this is not where Ben’s heart was. Let’s start a memorial foundation, let’s benefit others.’”
Last August, in conjunction with City Church New Haven, the Callahans’ church, the family put together an event to feed the homeless on the New Haven Green. Four hundred hungry people showed up.
Then the Callahans organized a fundraiser held Dec. 2 at Walsh Intermediate School, followed by “B.B’s Christmas” benefit dinner for the needy at the Branford Elks Club Dec. 23, Ben’s birthday. The event’s name was linked to a stuffed gorilla Ben was given when he was 3. He named the gorilla B.B. King in honor of the blues musician; even then the kid had advanced musical tastes.
When asked what he remembers about his brother, Scout said, “He was really funny. He had a really funny laugh. He tried to make us laugh too. He was a good cook. We made breakfast together, like pancakes.”
Cooper remembered: “He was really fun to be around. I still miss him, of course. He was a great athlete, one of the best players on the team.”
Callahan said his son was “so outgoing. He wasn’t just the best athlete; he’d talk to players on the other teams and the coaches.”
Callahan added, “I miss his willingness to participate in something, to get excited. If there was an opportunity, he’d jump on it. He had so much energy, so much passion.”
Permitting himself a rare moment of sadness, Callahan said, “It just feels like a void. Like the lights have dimmed.”
But he brightened as he thought about this weekend’s events, his boys mingling with football stars. “The three of us will be in matching tuxes. We’ll look sharp!”