To Erika Cowell, being a mom has always been her most important role.
“I’ve always worked, but being a mom was my career,” says Erika, a mother of six. “I always knew I wanted to be a mom. When the kids were little, it was just so wonderful watching them grow and shaping them into who they are. And now, as they’re all entering adulthood, it’s so satisfying and gratifying to look at them and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I turned her into that. I’m the reason they’re such good people.’ Four of them are daughters. I’m seriously surrounded by my best friends all the time. It’s just the greatest thing that I’ve ever done in my life.”
The birth of her youngest child, Colten, transformed her entire life. After he was born in May of 2006, Colten was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
“Anytime you receive that your child has Down syndrome, it's a little bump. But honestly, he was such a cool kid that it was a tiny bump,” shares Cowell, who says the transition for her was easier for her since mother taught special education and she had grown up around individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Right from the beginning, she knew Colten was special.
“He was the sunshine of our house,” she says. “He changed my entire career path twice… I had never considered providing speech therapy to children with special needs until I had him and saw what a difference a therapist can make in their life. And here I am now running a foundation and his honor, making a difference for kids.”
Colten was diagnosed with leukemia in January of 2009. He spent every month of that year fighting cancer. In December, Colten was sent to hospice. Before he passed away, Colten was given a ride in a “Batmobile” owned by local businessman and philanthropist Charles Keller. Colten passed away two weeks after being a passenger in the Batmobile. Two years later, Erika was sorting through pictures of that night.
“I realized looking at those pictures of the night that Charles brought the Batmobile was a night where everybody was happy. You couldn't even tell what was sick anymore because he was laughing and he was playing and all the other kids were having fun. It was just such an amazing night,” she says.
Powell wrote Keller a thank you note expressing her gratitude. Keller reached out to her and asked for her permission to name the organization after her son. She agreed and started volunteering for the organization. In 2015, she became the executive director.
The Colten Cowell Foundation is a Phoenix-based nonprofit that serves children with disabilities and terminal illnesses. The foundation’s signature program is the Superhero Experience. Kids take a ride in the Batmobile and take a ride to the crime fighting “cave.” Inside the cave, kids and their families can see a replica of Bruce Wayne’s study and enjoy interactive activities. Every nominated child receives a check to go toward the charity of his or her choice. The organization serves about 130 families a year. In total, the foundation has served 535 families.
When she took over in December of 2015, Powell expanded the organization’s reach to include children who have disabilities in addition to those with terminal illnesses. The organization also partners with other nonprofits. She says working with nonprofits made her realize how many good people are in this world. And nonprofits have provided her, and so many others, with a sense of community
“I bond with every family that comes through,” says Cowell. “When families started reaching out to me, it was a little hard because I didn’t know what to say, which is strange. And it’s mostly because there isn’t [anything]. They like that I understand that. I have cried a lot of tears with a lot of moms. And it is really hard, but I get to be that person for somebody. It’s a pretty small group of people who actually understand what it’s like to lose a child.”
The busy mom, executive director, and student—she’s working on her bachelor’s in business administration and nonprofit management—has plenty on her to-do list, but to her, the rewards of all her hard work pay off big.
“It's hard to juggle everything, but I truly believe I have the best job in the world. It makes it worth it,” she says. ”It's been the most healing thing I think any mom could ever receive. It's just been such a gift to be able to see your child live on in an experience.” ColtenCowellFoundation.org