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The spirit of what my sons loved

Almost three years after her three young sons died in a plane crash, Geri Pope Bidwell has created a powerful memorial to them, one that channels each boy's essence in a way that serves the community they were a part of.

The Jack, Will and Rob Center opened last month in the boys' hometown of Camas, Wash., where it functions as a youth center providing a range of programs, resources and mentoring for neighboring families.

The center is the result of a multitiered fund-raising campaign, the creativity of some of the region's top designers and architects, and the impassioned efforts of the boys' family and friends.

But it was their mother's single-minded focus and ability to rally support that brought the beautifully executed center to fruition so rapidly. Pope Bidwell acknowledges that the project gave her a focus during a time of crushing grief.

'Creating the Jack, Will and Rob Center gave me a course of action to take that's helped me to carry on with the spirit of what my sons loved,' Pope Bidwell says. 'It's given me the ability to create something that the boys would have wished for other kids to have. It's also healed some of my brokenness to build something with others. I learned that I wasn't all alone, and neither were my boys.'

Jack, Will and Rob Warren were 14, 13 and 9 when the plane piloted by their father Ñ William 'Tiger' Warren, founder of Macheezmo Mouse restaurants Ñ plunged into the Columbia River the day after Thanksgiving in 1999, killing all aboard.

The 41-year-old Pope Bidwell, who has an 11-year-old daughter by Warren, and twin 4-year-old girls with her husband, Jerry, says the idea for the center came within days of the accident.

'It grew into a plan to create a place that was like a three-chambered heart,' she says, 'each chamber being an artistic area for a child: visual arts, computer arts and a music-theater area.'

The three areas reflect the favored activity and personality of each boy and are named in their honor.

'Rob was the extrovert; he loved to perform,' Pope Bidwell says of her youngest son. Rob's Playhouse reflects the boy's vivacious personality with a concert stage and two soundproof recording booths where kids can cut their own CDs.

Technology is the focus of the cozy, librarylike Jackson Room, where tutors will monitor kids as they use its 12 PCs and three Macintosh computers.

'Jack, my oldest son, couldn't spell very well,' Pope Bidwell says with a laugh. 'He counted on the 'spell check' feature on his computer.'

Next door, afternoon sun floods Will's Studio, named for Pope Bidwell's middle boy.

'Will was the artist,' his mother says of the talent that inspired the studio. The classes taught here will be an extension of Margarita Leon's Creative Kids, a long-standing and noteworthy children's art program in Portland.

Will's Studio includes two kilns, which will allow budding artists to sculpt busts in their own likenesses. The busts, one of Leon's signature projects, can take children up to six months to complete. Along the way, the life-size pieces of art challenge the young sculptors to examine how they perceive themselves.

The center also has a beautifully appointed gymnasium, named for local businessman and philanthropist Ray Hickey. A coach of Camas kids' teams, Hickey's famous halftime quote is also painted on the center court line: 'What we need here is a little less wishbone and a little more backbone.'

Finally, an open community space will be where kids gather for Alexandra's Power Hour, a self-empowerment and defense class named for Alexandra Zapp, the young Portland woman who was murdered in July at a Massachusetts highway rest stop. Her sister, Caroline Zapp Kahn, says the class is something her feisty big sister would appreciate.

'Alexandra always said, 'I suffer no fools,' ' Kahn says, adding that her sister would be proud to know that her free-spirited legacy lives on.

From the ground up

Most of the funding for the $5.3 million facility was generated through private funding efforts, donations that Pope Bidwell says were appreciated at even the smallest level.

'Every time a kindergartner sold a clay ladybug for 50 cents, a foundation would read about it and express their interest,' she says of the grass-roots effort. 'But we made it a policy to never divulge how much a private gift was made for, only to put the givers' names in an alphabetized list. What was interesting about that was that nobody ever had to feel judged by how much they gave; it enabled people to give freely.'

The Camas School District, which owns the Jack, Will and Rob Center, contributed $800,000. The two grade schools that are a ball's kick away from the center use the gymnasium during the day. When school's out, the center is bustling with its target audience of elementary through high school students, who gain entrance with the swipe of a membership card, available for $20 per year.

The Clark County YMCA oversees the center's day-to-day activities and the instructors who teach them. Weekday hours are now

2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., but the YMCA plans to offer Saturday classes and programs for adults in the near future. The evening classes will include yoga, cooking and recreation league sports in the gym.

Pope Bidwell, who still lives in Camas, acknowledges that its location may be friendliest to Camas residents, but she says its resources are available to anyone who uses it with 'respect and diligence.'

Not everyone felt the center was a worthwhile project, including a Camas soccer coach who said the boys hadn't done anything to merit a structure built in their name.

Pope Bidwell says it was just that kind of reaction that fueled her desire to complete the center.

'The helplessness that I felt from being unable to protect my children's lives unleashed a torrent of anger in me, and I used this every time the project ran into an obstacle, a political roadblock or some negative-minded person who went against it,' she says.

Jerry Bidwell commends his wife for her ability to direct her loss toward something meaningful, adding that the 'astonishing loss' was matched by the empathy it brought forth.

'I think that's why the response from the community, family and friends has been so great,' he says. 'People have personalized (the accident), asking themselves, 'What would I do if I lost a child?' And to watch Geri proceed, and do it so proudly and effectively and not to make this some heartstring-yanking exercise is something I have great admiration for. É To speak about the joy of it, the continuation of life and the boys having their lives expressed through the lives of other children was a heart-rending experience for people who were watching her perform in this way.'

Kinetic billboards

Pope Bidwell asked Heinz Rudolf, a 40-year veteran of Portland's Boora architecture firm, to oversee the center's design, which Rudolf says was largely inspired by the light that floods the center's hilltop location.

'We wanted to make sure that the building's exterior expressed the programs that occur on the inside,' Rudolf says of the center's abundant windows. 'You can see the activities going on as you drive by. In that way the center is self-advertising.

'Also, simplicity and permanency are expressed in the quality of materials used. The rock wall as you enter, the slate flooring, the stained concrete walls Ñ they all express security and strength.'

The Jack, Will and Rob Center isn't particularly large Ñ imagine a good-size contemporary home with a gymnasium attached. Rudolf says the subtlety was intentional.

'When you approach the building, the scale of it is reduced down to a kid's level,' Rudolf says. 'And yet as you enter the building, it unfolds with these kind of soft curves that let the mind go. It's not just a ceiling over your head. It rises and becomes larger in volume as you walk into the building and expands the space.'

Among the building's most interesting features are three 5-inch circular glass tiles that are placed in a seemingly random fashion on an otherwise bare concrete wall. On each boy's birthday, a periscope fixed at the apex of the ceiling funnels sunlight toward his tile, illuminating a quote and the boy's name throughout that day.

On Rob's tile there's a Buddhist quote: 'Make of yourself a light.' On Will's is one from Theodore Roethke: 'What falls away is always, and is near.' For Jack, it's simply: 'Jack was here.'

'Geri is very modest,' Rudolf says. 'She did not want the building to simply be a memorial to the kids, which is why I suggested we do something that the kids stood for on a major wall.'

The iconic glass pyramid atop the structure is intentionally abbreviated, another subtle metaphor created by the Boora team.

'The pyramid is cut off at the top,' Rudolf says. 'It's incomplete Ñ something is missing on this building. Even though it looks perfect, something is missing.'

Pope Bidwell says she was overwhelmed by the final product and pleased by the Jack, Will and Rob Center's timely completion.

'I wanted the boys' friends to see it before they graduated; they meant everything to my sons,' Pope Bidwell says. 'I thought that the impact of this would have a tremendous benefit to their life, that it would show how something powerful and positive could emerge. Good things can happen in threes.'

Contact Jill Spitznass at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .