Young twirler lifted batons and spirits

ERIN JEDLOWSKI | Dec. 12, 1988 - July 15, 2012

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After she felt a call to Christian missions, Erin Jedlowski pursued it with the same passion and discipline she had poured into becoming a national champion baton twirler. Her quest ended with a van crash as the 23-year-old from Lower Burrell led a trip to Louisiana to rebuild homes damaged from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"She felt God in her heart and thought she should teach others about God," said her mother, Kim Todt Jedlowski of New Kensington. "She believed that every kid should go to camp to have that experience of God, that doing mission trips teaches you how to help others, and that helping others helps you spiritually and emotionally."

Ms. Jedlowski died Sunday from injuries suffered in the July 1 crash.

She first drew attention as a gifted baton twirler, starting lessons with her older sister.

"She was much better than I was," said her sister, Kristin O'Connor of Monroeville. Even after Ms. Jedlowski found higher priorities, she was rarely without a baton in her hand, twirling as she went about household duties.

She was a majorette at Lower Burrell High School and competed with Karen's Blue Angels from Leechburg. She won team and solo national championships.

"I looked up to her my whole life, as a performer and a person," said Jordanne Weidner, a younger Blue Angel. "She was the star of the show, but she was very humble and she would help younger girls."

That attitude was encouraged at Ms. Jedlowski's church, Bethel United Methodist in Lower Burrell, where she was active in a ministry group that used black light and various performance media to teach Bible lessons. She attended church camp every summer and in 11th grade went on a mission trip to help urban children in Cincinnati.

When she returned "she felt she had a calling to do that with her life," her mother said.

At the University of Pittsburgh, she twirled briefly with the Golden Girls and continued to teach baton lessons. But her focus was on mission work. While at Pitt she learned sign language so she could volunteer at a school for deaf children in Jamaica.

"The school was in the roughest part of town, but she had no fear," said Michele Lundberg, a close friend on the staff of Jumonville, a United Methodist camp in Hopwood, where Ms. Jedlowski was first a camper and then a six-year staff member. As her senior project for her writing degree she wrote a staff manual for Jumonville.

"She was the kindest person, kind even to people who didn't deserve it. She was very funny, very witty and very, very feisty," Ms. Lundberg said. "Her smile could light up a room. And she was a very godly woman. Her faith was first and foremost."

On July 1, 2011, she was hired as director of missions and youth at First United Methodist Church of Waynesburg, tasked with reviving a flagging youth ministry and organizing mission trips for all ages. She ran the Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, and restarted a youth group for teens. She interviewed leaders of local charities and arranged for them to speak at the church. In December she threw a "baby shower for Jesus" to provide baby items for families in need.

"She was a dynamo, energetic, lively, always smiling, always a kind word. She lived her Christian faith," said the Rev. Gary Grau, the pastor.

Earlier this summer she organized an adult mission trip to a destitute region of Appalachia, where the group installed a family's first indoor toilet. Someone used it before the water was hooked up "and she was the one who cleaned it out. There was nothing beneath her," Ms. Lundgren said.

As part of her effort to rebuild the youth ministry, she organized a trip to Slidell, La., a center of ongoing post-Katrina relief work. Four high school boys signed up. They left June 30 in a van with Ms. Jedlowski, Rev. Grau and another adult chaperone.

Around 5 a.m. July 1, the first anniversary of her work at the church, Ms. Jedlowski was sleeping in the back of the van when it apparently ran over debris on Interstate 81 near Jefferson City, Tenn.

According to the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the right front and rear tires blew out simultaneously. The van rolled three times and Ms. Jedlowski was ejected. Other passengers received only minor injuries.

Her organs were donated.

"It was something she felt strongly about. She was always telling other people to become donors. She said, 'You don't need them when you aren't here. They can help somebody else,' " her sister said.

The tragedy hasn't dimmed the mission fervor at First United Methodist of Waynesburg.

"We're even more on fire to do it in her name and in her memory," Rev. Grau said.

Ms. Jedlowski is survived by her parents, Darryl and Kim Todt Jedlowski of New Kensington; a sister, Kristin O'Connor; and a grandmother, Mary Mazza Jedlowski of New Kensington.

Visitation is 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday and 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday in Rusiewicz Funeral Home, Lower Burrell. The funeral is Saturday at Bethel United Methodist Church, Lower Burrell.

Memorial contributions may be made to the mission scholarship fund at First United Methodist Church of Waynesburg, 112 N. Richill St., Waynesburg, PA 15370 or the Bethel Campership, c/o Bethel United Methodist Church, 150 Alder St., Lower Burrell, PA 15068.

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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