Pendant created in honor of McCullagh
For the past 13 years, the Sarah Grace Lydia McCullagh Memorial Dance Clinic has been held to honor the memory of Sarah McCullagh, a Woodstock High School student who died in 1999 the day before her senior year would have begun.
Sarah and one of her closest friends, Alyssa Rosati, were expected to be co-captains of the pom squad that year, having worked their way through the program after joining as sophomores.
“Sarah was probably one of the most perfect people I have ever met,” Rosati said, adding there was rarely a time when Sarah wasn’t smiling.
As part of this year’s dance clinic, Alyssa, who works at Studio 2015 Jewelry, helped to design a heart pendant raffled off during the event. The pendants may be produced for purchase at the jewelry store, with a portion of proceeds going to the memorial fund.
Sarah’s mother and stepfather, Bette and David Chwalisz, organized and hosted the first dance clinic in Sarah’s memory just six months after her death. Thirteen clinics have taken place since Sarah’s death. The T-shirt for the inaugural clinic was designed by Alyssa and her boyfriend and now husband, Mike Rosati, and features a heart design that has been adapted to logos each subsequent year. The heart was chosen because Bette draws a heart with Sarah’s name every time she writes a note to Alyssa.
While Alyssa’s main responsibility was to lead dance instruction for the first clinics, she said she has recently taken a more behind-the-scenes role in helping with sign-ups or developing sponsors. Alyssa said she and Sarah’s former coaches, Mary Fredricksen and Kara Friedel, also have played a part in each of the clinics.
After Alyssa designed jewelry for a friend’s bridal party, Bette and David thought it would be great for her to design a pendant in memory of Sarah.
Rather than design it herself, she asked Studio 2015 owner Tom Dougherty for assistance in making the pendant look as professional as possible. Alyssa said the stick figure commonly used in logos was made to look a bit more like a real person. A ponytail was then added to the girl, something that made Alyssa immediately think of Sarah.
“Right away, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s Sarah,’” Alyssa said.
The heart used on all the T-shirts is included on the pendant and looks like angel wings. The result was unintentional, but fits the character of Sarah, Alyssa said.
“Sarah was an angel when she was here, so it only makes sense that she’s an angel watching over all of us,” she said.
The pendant was cast in silver and put on a chain before being raffled off to the winning recipient.
“She [the girl who won the pendant] was so excited,” Alyssa said. “It meant a lot to see [the winner] so excited.”
Alyssa said competing in poms in high school is a commitment. Poms is not a sport that lasts a single season. It stretches through football and basketball seasons and includes other obligations such as participation in parades and other events.
“I was absolutely awful,” said Alyssa, laughing as she remembered her and Sarah’s first attempts. “But we both loved dancing. We were both in ballet as little kids.”
For the next couple of years, Sarah and Alyssa’s bond grew closer. Their first poms competition, the day of a blinding snowstorm, left the girls energized and wanting to improve. They practiced hard and helped transform the WHS pom squad into a state champion.
On Aug. 24, 1999, Sarah died after suffering a severe asthma attack following a jog.
“I was just frozen,” Alyssa said of her reaction. “We [went to the hospital], said our goodbyes. We had some tough, tough years going through that.”
The memorial fund established thereafter provides scholarships for senior dance team members. The most recent event, held in February, raised enough money for four $1,000 scholarships and an additional $1,000 to help the dance team pay competition expenses. Alyssa attributes the success of the clinics to Bette and David.
“They’re really the glue for that clinic,” Alyssa said. “They’re amazing people to know.”