Everything Grace Rett did in life was rooted in the Our Lady of the Valley Regional School, and Grace did a lot, from breaking a world record in rowing to signing and playing cello at church and going on adventures with her younger sister.
“Just from the minute she got here she loved school, the teachers … it’s like a magical place. It’s full of love and she was so well educated, so well prepared for high school and beyond, and her faith was nurtured,” Grace’s mother Mary Jo Rett recalled Wednesday, sitting with her family in the small Central Massachusetts school that made such a lasting impact for her daughter.
Grace attended Our Lady of the Valley in her hometown of Uxbridge from kindergarten through her eighth-grade graduation. Though the school shaped Grace into a woman with big ambitions, there was one thing missing: a gymnasium for basketball.
Now, about nine months since Grace’s life ended too soon, the Rett family is finding the strength to get up every day with memories of Grace and a mission to raise $1 million so that a state-of-the-art athletics and education facility can be built and named in Grace’s memory.
Everything changed for the Rett family on Jan. 15. Grace had just celebrated her 20th birthday the day before and was doing what she loved, getting ready to row with her College of the Holy Cross teammates. The women’s rowing team was in Florida for winter training ahead of the competitive season.
A van carrying Grace and a portion of the teammates turned left into an intersection in Vero Beach, slamming into a pickup truck. Holy Cross’ former rowing coach, Patrick Diggins, was driving. Grace succumbed to her injuries as several teammates were also injured in the collision. In February, Diggins retired and was cited by police.
Weeks before the crash, Grace had broken a world record for indoor rowing. Suddenly, a time of celebration turned into an immeasurable tragedy for her family, friends and teammates at the Worcester college’s campus.
“It’s not easy getting up every morning but knowing that Grace would want us to get up and keep living our lives and being active is what really keeps me going,” said Grace’s sister Brianne Rett, who also attended Our Lady of the Valley Regional School. Mary Jo Rett is also a music teacher at the school.
Grace was incredibly funny, Mary Jo Rett said, had no filter and wouldn’t do anything halfway. Mary Jo Rett remembers family road trips and looking at colleges together. Grace would always need a nice hotel room, Mary Jo Rett recalled as the family sat at Our Lady of the Valley together Wednesday, remembering Grace with laughter and moments where tears started to well up in their eyes.
For Brianne Rett, fond memories are ones of shopping and going to the movies, a day taking photos at a sunflower farm and driving to and from Marianapolis Preparatory School in Connecticut, where they attended high school together.
“On the way home, she’d often miss our exit accidentally so we could spend more time in the car together. We loved singing in the car,” Brianne Rett said.
Since January, the family has been overwhelmed by the stories people have shared, inspired by Grace.
“We keep hearing things like ‘best teammate ever, best friend,’ and to have the G.R.A.C.E. Center allow that legacy to continue, she’s not here to continue it, but other kids can experience that and that will be a little piece of her here,” said Chris Rett, Grace’s father.
Our Lady of the Valley had been planning to expand the school with a gym and education space for years. Now, they plan to call the facility the Grace Rett Athletic Complex and Education Center, G.R.A.C.E. Center for short. An anonymous donor has promised to match $1 million for the project. Now, the Rett family must raise $1 million so that construction can hopefully start next year.
“It seemed like a perfect tribute to name it the G.R.A.C.E. Center because she was the model of what we hope our students become. Grace was always excelling and achieving as a student, as an athlete, musically, but was also solid in her faith,” said Pastor Nick Desimone of the Our Lady of the Valley Parish. “For us, it was not only a way to honor Grace but to say that this school helps to form young people to become like her, to have a lot of those same qualities and characteristics, of course, always rooted in faith.”
Grace used to specifically mention that if she had money, she would build the school a gym, Chris Rett recalled.
In December, a year after Grace broke a world record, rowing for 62 hours straight, the family plans to host a 62-hour online social media event, pushing to raise the funds needed for the center. They’re also reaching out to potential corporate donors.
Before the rowing record, Grace told her father, “I’m either leaving the gym with a world record or on a gurney,” Chris Rett recalled.
Our Lady of the Valley does not have an existing gymnasium or any dedicated indoor recreational space. Currently, students are bussed to borrowed gyms for physical education classes or interscholastic athletics, a large expense.
Grace would be thrilled to know the school was getting a gym, finally giving students a chance to have a home game, the family said.
“The classroom and her education was equally, if not more, important than her sports and everything else. She would be so excited that they were getting more space for anything they needed,” Mary Jo Rett said.
The G.R.A.C.E. Center will be a 7,500 square foot facility with a high school-sized basketball court; 75 bleacher seats; two indoor classrooms; green space for outdoor classes; a welcoming foyer; bathrooms; storage space; and a concession area.
“I think already the school is raising dedicated students and record-breaking athletes. Having even more room to grow will just make an astronomical impact on the world and the people that come out of here are really going to do amazing things,” Brianne Rett said.
About $2.2 million of the $3 million needed to design and construct the center has been fundraised by the OLV and St. Mary’s Parish communities to date. The project is being designed by Rubicon Builders & Austin Architects, who hope to break ground early next year.
The center will be used for physical education and classroom learning, as well as for chorus and band instruction, extracurricular activities and athletics, science fairs and St. Mary’s Parish events.
“For over five decades, OLV has been educating and encouraging generations of youth, like Grace, to be kind and ambitious young men and women,” said Ed Reynolds, the OLV principal. “We are blessed to be a growing, flourishing community that is in need of more space to continue our mission of preparing children to go forth and make the world a better, more Christian place. Your support will help ensure that we are able to help our students mature and grow in a way that follows the impressive example Grace left for us.”
Anyone who wants to donate to the project can do so online.
After the January crash, more than 1,000 students gathered at Holy Cross to remember Grace. Holy Cross President Rev. Philip Boroughs delivered a homily, describing Grace as an “enthusiastic and lively woman of faith and intellect, generous and kind, energetic and relentless.”
This summer, Ronald Wolf, the driver of the pickup truck, sued Holy Cross and Diggins.