A NWIndiana Life in the Spotlight: Diane Gross

DianeGrossWhen Diane Gross first thought about opening Eco Chic, a high-end clothing consignment boutique in Dyer, she shared her idea with her younger sister Dawn.

“Dawn was my biggest cheerleader! She was a cheerleader in high school and that talent stayed with her. She was always encouraging everyone to follow their dreams,” Gross recalls fondly. “In high school, she was voted Homecoming Queen not because she was part of the popular crowd, but because all the students felt a special bond with her. At her job, everyone from the maintenance crew to the groundskeepers all knew her and loved her,” says her sister Diane Gross.

Dawn Brancheau loved both people and animals. She also loved whales!

When Dawn was 13, her family visited Sea World in Orlando, Florida. She knew then that she wanted to be a Sea World trainer and that remained her focus through her high school and college studies. It took her years to get an interview with the park. But, when she did, her interviewer knew instantly that they had found their next trainer. Dawn started at the “Clyde & Seymour” Show working with sea lions, otters and a walrus. She rose quickly through the ranks and was promoted to work at Shamu Stadium. She not only worked with the whales, she developed such an expertise that famed animal expert Jack Hanna called her “the Olympian of her field.” On February 24th, 2010, Dawn Brancheau died in an accident involving one of her whales.

“Almost immediately, the family knew that we had to do something to carry on her legacy. Her passion for people and animals was so great and we wanted to make a difference like she did. We wanted to surpass anything she would have dreamed about doing herself,” explains Diane.

With help from family and friends, the Dawn Brancheau Foundation honors Dawn’s legacy by helping children and animals in need, inspiring others to follow their dreams, and promoting the importance of community service. The Foundation hosts two events each year. There is a Dream Big 5K held at Sea World in Orlando, FL that is held in April and a Dream Big Walk held in September in Crown Point, IN. Proceeds from these events are used to fund a number of projects in Florida, Indiana and across the world.

The 5th Annual Dream Big Walk is set to take place on Sunday, September 20th at the Lake County Fairgrounds. The walk is designed to be both family friendly and dog-friendly.

“We are especially excited this year because Sea World is returning and bringing a variety of exotic animals. Sea World does not normally travel, but they make these special arrangements because of Dawn. The highlight for everyone is the penguins. This is a great opportunity for kids in the area who maybe cannot afford to travel to a zoo to see these animals up close and, in some cases, touch them,” explains Gross.

Community service projects are also part of the Dream Big Walk. At last year’s event, family food bags were prepared for Chicago area children in need serviced by Horizons for Youths. Doggie adoption bags were prepared for a South Suburban Humane Society event. Blankets were sent to African children in need serviced by Matanya's Hope. Handmade greeting cards were created and delivered to assisted living homes throughout the year.

“In Northwest Indiana, we have painted, landscaped and given a new roof to the gazebo at the Lake County Fairgrounds. We built and paid for new playground equipment at St. Jude House. We provide scholarships to students at Andrean High school where Dawn attended school. We have delivered personal care products to women and children in need at the Sojourner Truth House. The Foundation also hosts many celebrations at the Boys & Girls of Cedar Lake throughout the year. Our volunteers serve food & drinks, deliver toys & wish list items, and partake in games & activities,” explains Gross.

“If Dawn were here today, she would tell us the same things she told us in life. Be the best you can be and it is the little acts of kindness that make a difference. She would tell kids that if they study hard and get their education there is nothing they cannot accomplish,’ says Gross.

If you wish to get involved in the work of the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, you can find them on facebook or visit their website at dawnsfoundation.org.