In 2006 I had the distinct honor of delivering the commencement speech at Notre Dame. In preparation for the event, I spoke with a few of the graduates-to-be about their NDP experience and the road ahead. One of those young women was Chas Dunnaville, undeniably the brightest of stars in an exceptional class. While at Notre Dame, Chas was President of the Athletic Association and was awarded the White Blazer, Notre Dame’s highest honor, given to that graduating senior who exemplifies the very best of NDP values. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that Chas had a perfect attendance record at NDP from 6th grade all the way through 12th! It’s not that she never got sick, but it would take a lot more than a cold or flu to keep this good girl down. The same went for her studies. According to her mom, Taryn Dunnaville, Chas was “an average student…not a quick learner.” Yet she”applied herself 100%” often studying until 1 or 2 in the morning. As a result of such hard work and dedication, Chas’s college dream came true and in the fall of 2006 she entered the Naval Academy as a midshipman, class of 2010. Upon graduating from NDP, Taryn turned to her daughter and said, “I’m proud of the person you’ve become.” In that moment, she could have no way of knowing how her pride would grow even greater, how her love would run even deeper for this young woman, her daughter, Chastity Brione Dunnaville. I asked Taryn about her daughter’s name.
“I know. Some people think, ‘Who would do that to a child?’ ” Taryn laughed. “But God gave me her name. And it fit. Chastity means purity. Brione means strength…” Her voice drifted off. “She had a nickname, though,” Taryn admitted. “Her grandmother called her ‘Boommy’ and it stuck.”
“Why Boommy?” I inquired, curious.
“‘Cause when she was a baby she was just always kicking her legs and squealing with laughter and…”
“Exploding with life?”
“I get it. Boommy. As in ka-boom-y!”
It’s true. Chas personified her name. She was full of life and vigor. She was pure of heart and purpose and single-minded in her pursuits. She was strong and fierce and courageous in the face of any challenge. Still, Chas could have no way of knowing, standing with her mother on the steps of Notre Dame that graduation day that her greatest challenge was lying in wait.
Chas entered the Naval Academy in the fall of 2006. While there – despite never having attempted the game before – Chas played on the rugby team, became an Academy All Star and was on the short list for the US Women’s Olympic Team. She was a dedicated student, a fierce competitor, and a model serviceman. In 2009 she was appointed Regimental Commander, in charge of training 1200 new plebes. She graduated from the Academy in 2010 and hit the ground running. Literally and figuratively. She was a warfare information and I.T. specialist, stationed in Texas, with hopes of serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. She also continued to play rugby, on the All-American Team. In the fall of 2010, just three short months after graduation, Chastity sustained a broken nose during a tournament in California. Though considered a routine injury for such a brutal contact sport, still Chas’s nose would not heal. And that was when this young, vibrant, purpose-driven life came to a screeching halt. Upon closer examination, doctors discovered a savage mass behind her nose. Diagnosed with RMS, a rare form of cancer, which arises in and moves through skeletal muscle, Chas suddenly faced the fight of her life. The prognosis was not good.
“I told her, Taryn explained, ‘ This is your Iraq. This is your Afghanistan.’ Let me tell you, Chas was a warrior every step of the way.”
It is likely Chas got this sense of fight, this sense of beating the odds and blowing through a stacked deck from Taryn.
“I’m a product of dysfunctional urban America. Grew up in the projects. My mother was 14 when she had her first child. 18 when she had me. I came through the Baltimore City Public School System ill equipped for life. My mother said, ‘It’s go to college or get on the plane’ meaning, join the service. My grades weren’t good enough for college, so I joined the Reserves. Served 4 years active duty and 17 years as a Reservist. I retired with 21 years of service just 18 days before Chas was inducted into the Naval Academy as an officer. Good thing, too, or she would have had me saluting her around the house, ” Taryn joked. “During that time, I also went to college and got my degree. I’m a businesswoman now. You know, you can do anything you want…and I wanted to give Chastity and her brother a different life.” And so she did. Still, nothing – no previous life experience or hard-won fight – would prepare any of them for the challenge they now faced.
“I told Chastity, I said, ‘I promise you. We will fight this together. I will not let you down’.”
It was a promise Taryn could not keep.
After 2 long and agonizing years, after 5 hospitals, countless doctors, tortuous physical pain and unbearable heartache, Chastity Brione Dunnaville passed from this life on December 16, 2012. She was just 24.
Taryn spent the next few weeks after Chas’s death combing through the things she had left behind. Among them, was a questionnaire Chas had filled out for a retreat during her junior year at NDP. One of the questions on the survey was:
“What do you fear most at this point in your life?”
What was Chas’s response? “Not being able to help people.”
“That was her answer! Can you imagine?” Taryn said in dismay. “A 16-year-old girl! And that’s when I realized, maybe I can keep my promise,” Taryn explained with renewed faith.
Chas’s high school friends, teachers, and the entire Notre Dame community had been there with Chas and Taryn through every step of her illness. They had shown undying support in vigilant and remarkable ways. Notre Dame opened their arms and hearts and doors to Chas in the last 2 years of her life, offering her a safe haven and a sense of belonging. When one of Chas’s former teachers was herself out on sick leave, Chas was invited to teach a class or two, rekindling in her a sense of real purpose.
“What better way” thought Taryn, “than to establish a Notre Dame scholarship fund in Chas’s name?”
“As long as I live, I will make sure others can benefit from the great opportunity of attending Notre Dame. That is my promise to Notre Dame. That is my promise to Chas.”
And so, on Saturday, July 27th, at 6PM, Taryn, former NDP middle school athletic director, Pat Groeninger, and their devoted committee of 15 women – ranging in age from 18 to 80 and all with connections in one way or another to NDP and Chas,- will host the first annual Crabs for Chas crab feast at NDP. All proceeds will go to fund the Chastity Brione Dunnaville Scholarship. And you are heartily invited to come. Everyone loves a crab feast. If you are free that night, there is no reason not to come. The crabs will never be cheaper! And there will be prizes, raffles, and an auction of some very special items. Plus, there will be an unveiling of a beautiful portrait of Chas and a slide show of her inspiring life. You do not want to miss this one. And even if you can’t attend the event, consider a donation to the Chas Dunnaville scholarship fund. Taryn “loved the person Chas had become.” Let us show Taryn and Chas the people we are. Help Taryn keep her promise to Chas.
For more information on how to donate or to buy tickets, click here.