We are BlakeStrong

A local event hopes to make life-changing impacts

By Jeremy Dunn

Blake Bowell wore many different hats. He was a gifted athlete, a dedicated Chicago sports fan, a lover of jam-bands, a driven scholar, a giving philanthropist and a loyal colleague. However, above all else, Blake was a man of faith that found purpose in helping others. A well-known Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 9:24, reads, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” Whether it was the athletic fields, the classroom, the workplace, or in his community, Blake Bowell was the embodiment of what this verse stands for. Regardless of life’s “races,” he always ran to win the ultimate prize… to love and inspire others.

On July 28, the Friends of Garfield Park will host an event, fittingly dubbed BlakeStrong Fest, to not only celebrate the 25-year old’s life but to raise money for a variety of causes that will carry on Blake’s giving heart.

Life in the fast lane

The 2010 Franklin Central High School graduate was a well-known and decorated student athlete for the Flashes. Bowell not only lettered in football and track but was also an All-State medalist, an Academic All-State honoree and the recipient of his team’s Mental Attitude Award during his senior track season. Upon graduation, Blake’s tireless efforts on the field and in the classroom were rewarded with an appointment to the United States Naval Academy and an opportunity to pursue a lifelong dream of serving his country.

Blake competed at the 2010 IHSAA state final in track his senior year He earned all-state honors. (Submitted photos.)

The fast-footed Bowell quickly earned a spot on the Midshipmen’s varsity track roster but an unexpected serious injury during military training forced the speedster to take an honorable medical discharge with a Veterans of Distinction, ending his time with the United States Naval Academy. Ever the optimist, the Franklin Township native transferred to Murray State University with a dream of studying business. Just like the Dave Matthews Band (one of Blake’s favorites) lyrics, he truly was making “the best of what’s around”. However, nothing could have prepared him for his next challenge.

During his time at the Naval Academy, Blake began to notice an increase in headaches, eating disorders and mood swings. In typical fashion, he armed himself with an infectious smile and determination to just keep moving forward. However, in the summer of 2013, the Bowell family was shocked when the good-hearted track star was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer. Over the next four years, he endured multiple seizures, surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, all while maintaining his well-known positive mindset and warm personality. On June 5, 2017, Blake passed away but his story was far from being complete.

Building BlakeStrong

Before his passing, Blake and his father, Mark, established the BlakeStrong, a foundation dedicated to helping fund cancer research and those in need. The Franklin Central alum with the passion for helping others shared, “People had been giving to me so much recently that I feel like I can give back to them.” Mark added, “We have been a giving family since day one. It only made sense to do something to help others through Blake’s journey. The organizations we support either have a direct connection to Blake or are related to the fight against brain cancer or the support of those with cancer!”

Since its conception in 2014, the BlakeStrong Bowell Fund has contributed to over a dozen local and national causes, ranging from scholarships awarded at Franklin Central High School and Greenwood Christian Academy to funding efforts with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, American Cancer Society and the National Brain Tumor Society. Mark shared, “Probably the most memorable moments have to be awarding two Franklin Central High School track and field seniors the BlakeStrong College Scholarships on June 6, 2017. The winners of the $2,000 scholarships were Kaylor Hoover and Emily Walker. Blake actually had a hand in the selection process. The other was assisting a young boy, Caleb Tucker, with his Make-A-Wish dream of going to Hawaii with his family this past June. Caleb is a cancer survivor and was a prayer buddy of Blake’s.”

Blake and his dad, Mark, at his last Cubs game on May 3, 2017. He said “I feel like $1,000 buck tonight!” The Cubs beat the Phillies 5-4.

Giving back

The foundation will attempt to make its greatest impact to date with the 2018 BlakeStrong Fest at Garfield Park. This festival-style event, being held at the MacAllister Amphitheater, will include various food trucks, a beer pavilion and live music from multiple acts. All in attendance will be asked to contribute a $10 donation at the entry, with all funds going to benefit the BlakeStrong Fund, the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation and to improve the children’s garden at Garfield Park. Mark, who also heads the Friends of Garfield Park organization, shared Blake’s deeply-rooted connection to the park. “Blake started coming to the park as a little boy and then began participating in programs,” he said. “He worked in the park off and on for 10 years during high school, college and during his battle with cancer. He was always willing to be there at all of our events. His willing spirit and can-do attitude brought energy to everything he did for us. Earlier this year, the Indy Parks and Recreation board honored Blake by naming the children’s garden in the park after him… Blake’s Garden.”

Mark and his family hope to bring in over $30,000 for the various causes through BlakeStrong Fest 2018. Park manager Fritz Nerding is thrilled to have the opportunity to honor the Franklin Township hero. “Everyone loved Blake, from the employees to the park visitors and Blake loved taking care of the plants, so we’re excited about Blake’s Garden and the planned improvements,” Nerding said. “We’ve never had an outdoor area where students on field trips can sit and hear from educators, so we’re looking forward to the classroom feature and the opportunities it will provide. The garden has always been a hidden gem of the park. With the new entry, it will be an easy-to-find, welcoming space for people of all ages to enjoy.”

Lakin Bowell, Blake’s sister, looks forward to BlakeStrong Fest bringing the community together. “I hope to see a blend of ages and people having fun at BlakeStrong Fest while supporting the community, cancer research and scholarships,” she said.

Mark Bowell is excited to celebrate Blake’s life and knows his son would approve. “I think Blake would be very proud and pleased with all the things that are going on. Also, the fact that so many of his friends and family have come back to help with the efforts of the festival would make him particularly happy. Blake brought joy to the party and it’s that feeling we are going to carry into our event.”

We are BlakeStrong

When faced with life’s adversities, Blake Bowell always found a way to keep moving forward with optimism and faith. It was this faith that provided him a quiet strength to carry on when he was given every opportunity to throw in the towel. His father believes, “From early on in Blake’s journey with cancer, you could sense the presence of peace that was about him. Athletics were an important part of his life, however, his simple faith is what sustained him. I have to say the words that he would use during the battle, ‘Chill. It’s all good!’”

To this day, Blake’s inspiration and fun-loving passion for helping others is continuing to add chapters to a beautiful story. By embracing this hometown hero’s life, we can all chill. It is all good.

During Blake’s six-year battle with brain cancer, he had three surgeries.

Check out BlakeStrong Bowell on Facebook.

For more information on the BlakeStrong Foundation contact Mark Bowell at dmbowell@gmail.com.

5 Questions with Mark Bowell

#1. What is the best advice you have ever received? There was a quote from my mother that is stuck with me my entire life. “A can’t never did anything… Just say I’ll try!”

#2. Do you share your son’s passion for Chicago sports teams? Well kind of. I am a true-blue lifelong Cubs fan. The fact that we got to share the Cubs winning the World Series together is something that I will cherish the rest of my life! Also, I pull for the Blackhawks and we made it to several games in Chicago. When it comes to football, I am a Colts guy and I root for the Pacers too.

#3. What is your favorite memory with Blake? There were so many great times. Probably the one that sticks out the most is July 1, 2010 at Annapolis. They call it “I Day” at the Naval Academy and it was the day that he took the oath and began his journey and the fulfillment of a life dream. A close second would have to be us being together for the Colts come-from-behind win over Kansas City in the 2014 NFL playoffs.

#4.  Blake loved jam-bands; what is your favorite album or band? Well, I am a musician and play in several bands. However, my favorite band has to be Chicago.

#5. What is your favorite place to go? In Blake’s own words, “It has to be Bethany Beach, Delaware.” However, today for me, Chicago will always be the spot that holds a place in my heart.