On a totally typical Saturday morning last summer, Gwen Howard awoke to tragic news: her uncle, aunt, and two young cousins had been while vacationing in Canada.
For Gwen, now 14, a passionate singer with a soulful voice, the path to honoring Robert Howard, Ana-Maria Dias, and their daughters Samantha and Veronica, was obvious: sing. Just a week after their deaths she performed at their memorial service.
More than six months later, the music continues. On March 17 at 6:30 pm, Gwen will to raise money for Roadway Safety Foundation. In addition to Gwen, the concert will also feature the youth a cappella group Cantando and local indie band Cartoon Bar Fight. The show will take place at , where Gwen's cousin Sam would have been a seventh-grader this year.
The family was killed in a fiery crash caused by a jack-knifing tractor trailer rig on a wet, curving highway on Kootenay National Park in British Columbia. They left behind grieving relatives in Los Altos and Palo Alto and friends who left remembrances on www.robertandmaria.com such as how Robert worked on their camper, whimsically named Edwina.
Gwen hopes to raise $6,000 over the course of this year for Washington, DC-based Roadway Safety. The Foundation advocates for things like improved medians, which Gwen thinks might have saved her family. She has already taken in $2,500 by doing regular street performances in downtown Palo Alto and selling silicon bracelets for $6 each that say “Safe Roads, Safe Future.” Not even a broken leg held her down; Gwen performed for most of the winter from a wheelchair after she had surgery after she was knocked off her bike by someone opening a car door.
Her performance, which will include many original pieces, also fulfills a requirement of The Girls’ Middle School in Palo Alto that each student complete a significant independent study project. Gwen is an eighth grader there this year.
The performance promises to be anything but a typical middle school concert. Peter Sammel, the music director at in Mountain View, where Gwen sings in the worship band says she has a talent and an integrity way beyond her years. He points to a review from an outsider who heard a piece she recorded last year, clearly stunned at her age: “The first song establishes an unexpected level of emotion for an artist who's 13…13, really?”
The memory of her cousins is one driving force.
“I was close to my cousins,” Gwen said. “Every year my family and I would go camping, and my cousins and I would spend all day playing cards, and frisbee. Their family also hosted our Christmas Eve party every year, so I looked forward to games of White Elephant and Monopoly for weeks in advance.
"We lived very close to each other so every now and then they would ride their bikes over with my uncle to say hello, which was always a wonderful surprise. Sam and Nica had incredibly charismatic and fun personalities. We always had a lot of fun together.”
“I envision them doing the same thing. They were the kind of people who would really reach out into the community,” Gwen said. “I picture them there and it motivates me.”
Adult tickets for the concert are $15 and tickets for those 13 and under are $10. They are for sale on Gwen's website, www.gwensings.com and will be available at the door. Donations can also be made online for those who are unable to attend the concert in person.