WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Abbie Schmitt has a lot of memories of time spent with her dad, Harvey, in the YMCA’s Adventure Guides program.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported that they shared camping trips, games, dances and Abbie’s favorite – canoeing.
“It was just fun to be out in the water, just me and my dad,” Abbie, 9, said.
They didn’t know at the time just how precious those moments were.
Harvey Schmitt died unexpectedly last October at the age of 50.
“It’s now a very big memory of me and my dad and all of the things we did together,” Abbie said of Adventure Guides.
Kirsten Schmitt, Harvey’s wife and Abbie’s mother, said he was “very conscious of the value of our time, that time equals love.”
“My takeaway on this experience and life without Harvey is just that life is not a dress rehearsal,” Kirsten said.
This is their first Father’s Day without him, but they have a strong support system.
Friends have rallied around Kirsten and Abbie as they grieve and heal. The fathers in Abbie’s Adventure Guides tribe — the Sweet Peas — have taken her under their wings, allowing her to continue participating in the program designed for dads and their children.
“In tribes, people watch out for each other,” said Jeff Holden, chief of the tribe.
The Schmitt family moved to Winston-Salem from Texas in the summer of 2009. Abbie was 4 at the time. They did not have any family in the area.
“We were told if there’s one thing that we should do, it would be to join the Y, and that would kind of help us get connected because we didn’t know anyone here,” Kirsten said.
So the family joined the William G. White Jr. Family YMCA in the West End area and started making friends.
“The Y has something for everybody,” Kirsten said.
She heard about the Y’s Adventure Guides program and encouraged Harvey to take Abbie on a fall retreat in 2009.
One of the things that grabbed her attention was a quote on the website from a 50-year-old woman who still had her Adventure Guides vest. Her dad had passed away, but she still had the memories.
Kirsten told Harvey: “This is the opportunity to make memories that are going to last forever and this is the window where your child is young, she wants to be with you.”
Looking back, Kirsten said, “That was just a good call.”
The YMCA Adventure Guides and Princesses program provides opportunities for fathers and their daughters or sons — usually elementary or middle school age — to strengthen their father/child relationships by joining “tribes.” These small communities are made up of about 10 dads and their daughters or dads and their sons.
The tribes have monthly meetings or activities. Members participate in a few major events during the year, such as campouts or father-and-daughter dances.
Darryl Head, senior vice president of operations for the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina, said the nationwide program was founded in 1926 and was once known as the Y-Indian Guide program. More than 400 people in northwest N.C. participate in the Adventure Guides program.
“It is a very special time one-on-one with your child,” Head said. “It is an opportunity to get to know them, for them to get to know you on a different level.”
Holden said the program gives dads a chance to see what it is like to completely take care of their children, and it helps them connect.
“A lot of dads have never really kind of had the opportunity to go out and just be with their daughters,” Holden said.
Kirsten Schmitt said she appreciates the program.
“I’m just really thankful for the Y and the difference that they made in helping (Harvey) to be the best dad that he could be,” Kirsten said, “giving him opportunities to sow into Abbie’s life adventure, because that was him.”
At first, the idea of joining a new group can be a little daunting.
“Harvey, he’d never met a stranger but was actually very introverted, so the idea of going on a weekend with a bunch of guys he didn’t know was very off-putting to him,” Kirsten said.
Holden knows that first-hand, saying at first it was uncomfortable at the meetings trying to make small talk.
But Adventure Guides provided the structure needed for the tribe members to get to know each other.
Kirsten said Harvey built wonderful friendships.
Holden recalls their first campout, when Harvey was scared to let Abbie out of his sight. Harvey gave Holden’s daughter, Miranda, a talk about keeping an eye on Abbie. It resulted in Miranda covering Abbie with glow sticks.
“So you could not miss her and there was no way that my daughter was going to let Abbie get out of her sight,” Holden said with a smile.
The friendships were important for Abbie, as well.
“The kids are actually just girls, so it’s just really fun,” Abbie said. “You can do a lot of activities and do lots of fun things together.”
Harvey was an investment adviser for BB&T and a talented singer and songwriter. He was very conscious of his own mortality, Kirsten said, because he had diabetes.
But his death, which was unrelated to the disease, stunned everyone. Harvey likely died from a blood clot in the lung.
Just a few weeks before, Harvey and Abbie had been on a trip with Adventure Guides.
You don’t know how deep your friendships are until something like that happens, Kirsten said.
“It was just like an avalanche of love that day that (Harvey) passed and in the days to come,” she said.
A counselor from the YMCA’s after-school care program showed up with flowers and cookies. People from the Y and Adventure Guides put together a dinner for the grieving family.
“They have been a wonderful support system, and also my church and friends that we’ve made through school,” Kirsten said.
Kirsten said she left it up to Abbie whether to continue in Adventure Guides.
Holden said that when Abbie said she would miss Adventure Guides, the fathers were unanimous in their sentiment.
“Everybody said, ‘You’ve got a whole bunch of dads now,’” Holden said. “There’s not been any events that someone hasn’t stepped up.”
Members drop by to take Abbie to monthly meetings and trips, treating her like their own child.
“It’s important so I’m not alone there and so I have somebody to be with,” Abbie said.
“I hope that I can be there a long time for Abbie, as well as the other dads, and that we can help her through,” Holden said.
Kirsten said it has been the way it should be if a tragedy happens.
“They’re a family,” she said.
Abbie, a third-grader at Whitaker Elementary School, has a lot of interests — science, animals and books, to name a few things. She played basketball and soccer, and has recently taken up running.
She continues to participate in all of the Adventure Guides activities, but it doesn’t mean that life without her dad is easy.
“It’s been a little hard because it just seems a little unfair that all these other kids have their dads and I don’t, and so sometimes it gets very lonely when all the other kids are with their dads and I’m just by myself because my dad’s not there,” Abbie said.
It makes her think of the things she wanted to do with her father, the accomplishments she wanted to show him.
It’s something Kirsten thinks about, too.
“It breaks my heart for the missed opportunities, if you want to look at the glass half-empty,” she said. “But I look at the glass half-full that Harvey was such a gift. He was a gift to us for the time we had him.”
One of the lessons Abbie learned from her dad helps: “No matter how hard a situation is, you can always get through it with the help of God.”
And in her very name, she carries hope.
Abbie is short for Abigail, which means “Father’s joy.”
“We wanted her to carry in her very identity a real gut understanding that she was loved on earth and that also she’s loved by her father in heaven. She’s treasured and wanted,” Kirsten said.
“I’m especially glad that that’s her name now.”