EAST PEORIA — Stephanie Chitkowski already has a spot reserved for her state championship medal back home.
Close by, never out of sight.
“I'm putting it in my bed,” said the Glenbard South junior, “and I'm going to sleep with it every night.”
It is not about a hunk of metal attached to a ribbon.
Chitkowski's attachment is to the memories. The moments. The people — teammates, family, friends — who mean the most to her.
Stephanie and her older sister Danielle have learned a lot in the last year about loss. They've also learned that there are some things tragedy cannot take away.
Last July 1, while Danielle was away at summer school and Stephanie softball practice, the Chitkowskis found out that their Glen Ellyn house burned down. Gone were all their possessions, their security, the place they called home.
Thankfully, none of the Chitkowskis were home during the fire, and their dogs were rescued.
Out of the ashes, the family was determined that life would move on.
“As soon as it happened our family came together and said that we were going to turn this into a good thing,” said Danielle Chitkowski, a senior. “Everything that we have done this year we have reflected on that.”
The Chitkowskis found out very soon that they weren't alone.
The day of the fire, the family of former Glenbard South teammate Jenny Wittenberg, a lifelong friend of Danielle's, offered their home that was on the market to stay in. While the Chitkowskis planned to rebuild their home on the same property, the community rallied behind the family.
That is something that has always struck me about the Glenbard South softball family, especially down here in East Peoria. For a school located in the Chicago suburbs nestled on bustling Butterfield Road, there is a close-knit small town-like feel to the Raiders and their families.
Glenbard South coach Julie Fonda can't help but admire how the Chitkowskis have not let tragedy get the best of them.
“It's about perseverance, and their parents are incredible people to get two girls' mindsets back on what life's all about,” Fonda said. “It's hard to swallow but they have such good attitudes. That is going to take them far in life. Dani, she's such a fighter and Stephanie's a fighter too. She just lives life to the fullest.”
Eventually the Chitkowski girls were able to get replacement medals.
Last month the family moved back into their rebuilt home. Danielle did so with a new outlook on life. Her old possessions were gone, but she still had family, friends, softball — many good things she never again would take for granted.
Stephanie, too, feels she's grown, coming to realize that “stuff” isn't everything in life.
“Even though that thing happened to me, I have come to realize that I do live a good life and I am very fortunate to be able to rebuild on the same place,” said Danielle, admitting that she does have a shelf in their new home set aside for her championship medal. “I've looked at life differently, that everything happens for a reason.”
“Once they knew everybody was OK, they were able to regroup,” Fonda said. “Things, they are replaceable. People are not.”
Also irreplaceable: all the memories Danielle and Stephanie will take from this year, this season and this weekend.
One of the most poignant Saturday was the sight of Danielle and Stephanie hugging their dad John after the championship game.One final, lasting memory to take home with them.
Fittingly, it ended with Stephanie pitching and Danielle squeezing the final out, then joyfully bounding toward her sister.
“Steph and I, we've done everything together,” said Danielle, who will play at Syracuse next year. “We've played on the same travel team together, we've pitched together. This is our last time playing together and it's just awesome to end this way.”
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