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'I know she's with God ... but I just miss her,' says mom of student who died in fall overseas

Writer: Maureen C. Gilmer

Publication: IndyStar.

Photos Provided by Chalene Braun

The day before Kassie Braun died was the best day of her young life. That's what she told her mom in the last phone call the two would share Nov. 7, 2017.

"Mom, I had the best day ever," Chalene Braun remembers her 20-year-old daughter telling her. Braun admits to feeling a pang of hurt that her eldest daughter's "best day" didn't include her, but still she wanted to hear all about it.

Kassie, a graduate of Cathedral High School and at that time a student at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, was thousands of miles away, in the middle of an 11-country, 106-day trip abroad, feeding her passion for travel and service through Semester at Sea. The accomplished skier, pianist and music lover told her mom how she and her friends had visited the most beautiful, peaceful places in Myanmar in Southeast Asia and she was eager to explore more sites later that day.

Six hours after that conversation, Braun got another phone call, this one from one of Kassie's friends in Bagan, Myanmar. Kassie had climbed the steps to the top of one of the thousands of ancient pagodas that dot the country's landscape when the bricks crumbled beneath her feet, pitching her some 40 feet to the ground.

Friends tried to stop the bleeding while waiting for medical help, but Kassie died in the back of an ambulance on the other side of the world.

The unthinkable had happened

Braun, her husband, Dave, and the couple's three other children struggle to make sense of the accident that shattered their world just six months ago. Their grief is still raw, their emotions tender.

"Every day is a hard day," Braun said, her voice betraying the strain as she continued: "I know she's with God, and I know I should be happy for her, and I am happy for her, but there are days I just miss her ... I'm a mom, I'm just a mom."

Part of coming to terms with the family's loss is celebrating Kassie and the dreams she had. So on Sunday, they will raise a glass to her at Daniel's Vineyard & Winery, 9061 N. Carroll Road, McCordsville. The occasion is Sip. Bark. Repeat. It's an event Kassie created herself last summer when she interned at the winery, just a mile from her family's house. 

Combining her love for animals and her passion for philanthropy, the dog- and family-friendly fundraiser from noon to 6 p.m. will raise money for study-abroad scholarships, grants and tuition assistance for Cathedral and St. Edwards University students. Through the Kassie Kares Foundation, the family also hopes to support the construction of Catholic schools in Nigeria.

The event will feature live music, food trucks, a kids' game area, adoptable dogs and, of course, wine. The first recipient of an educational scholarship to be given in Kassie's name also will be recognized. Suggested donation for the event, which is open to the public, is $10.

'I'm trying to honor her'

Braun isn't convinced this is what Kassie would have wanted. "Sometimes I feel she would be rolling her eyes at me."

But she feels strongly that she has to do something.

"The only way I know to honor my daughter and take care of her memory is to do something like this, because truly, the biggest loss here ... she had so many plans to serve. It wasn't a casual thing for her. She was always caring for others, caring for her siblings, caring for me. It was always in her heart.

"I would consider myself a bad mom if I didn't do something to continue that. It wasn't my life, it was hers, but if I can somehow grow that exponentially with the help of others, that's my new job."

Kassie found her calling early and lived to help others, but she served quietly. She didn't seek attention, her mom said, yet her smile and her spirit drew people in.

"It's hard for me to do that without her. I am trying to honor her, but it's hard."

Chalene Braun (left) visited her daughter Kassie last fall while Kassie was in South Africa. (Photo: Provided by Chalene Braun)

Helping her are Stephanie Pavilonis, co-wine maker at Daniel's, and Carlee Farrell, marketing manager. The two sisters worked with Kassie at the vineyard and winery last summer, shortly after it opened.

She was bright, kind and hard-working, just the type of person the small family-owned business needed. Despite having no experience in a vineyard, she learned quickly how to inspect and grade the 22 acres of vines, help in the tasting room and plan events.

"She spilled out positive energy," Pavilonis said. At the same time, "she was a doer; she had an idea and carried it out."

"She made you feel at ease," Farrell said. "And she was passionate about whatever she did."

Before she left on her trip last fall, Kassie showed her new friends at the winery her cellphone cover, which was decorated with all the different places she would visit while on the Semester at Sea cruise ship.

"I can't wrap my mind around it still," Pavilonis said. "She was so excited."

Kassie's mom finds a measure of peace at the winery, where she now works. Wherever she goes, she carries her daughter with her, not just in her heart, but in the form of a journal that Kassie kept while on her trip.

"I carry it with me in my work bag — she would probably be horrified to know that," Braun admitted. She takes solace in one thing in particular that Kassie wrote after feeling the pain of missing someone dear.

"She was sad and she wrote: 'Sometimes all it takes is a little mindset change, a little acceptance of the things we cannot change.'

"I cannot tell you how many times I have gone back to that one entry," Braun said.

In the midst of her grief, she looks for the good just as she believes Kassie would. She finds it in little things that her daughter enjoyed — a Coldplay song on the radio, the smell of Italian food cooking on the stove, even a slobbery kiss from the family labradoodle.

On Sunday, she'll be surrounded by good people and good dogs at Daniel's Winery, all there to celebrate the young woman she remembers as "an ambassador of love."


What: Sip. Bark. Repeat.

When: Noon to 6 p.m. June 3.

Where:Daniel's Family Vineyard & Winery, 9061 N. Carroll Road, McCordsville.

Why: Fundraiser for KassieKares, a nonprofit promoting philanthropic student involvement through international travel.

Cost: $10 suggested donation at the door.

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