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Saint John Paul the Great valedictorian's faith was put to the test

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Claire Kotwicki sat quietly in a pew of the chapel at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries as her fellow classmates filed out into the hallway. It was the end of a school day during her junior year and Kotwicki had attended Mass, but then had no motivation to leave. She didn’t have basketball or lacrosse practice to run off to, she wasn’t needed at her after-school job and she had no desire to visit with friends. Instead she stayed to reflect on her life and the dark place she found herself in. Her mom, Mari Kotwicki, had been diagnosed with breast cancer during finals week of 2015, her sophomore year, and the news was taking its toll.

Before the diagnosis, the bright eyed, straight-A student and athlete gave every indication of following her four older sibling’s footsteps as a successful high school graduate. Her quick mind and love of math was setting the stage for exciting college choices, and her friendly disposition had made her an excellent peer tutor and student ambassador.

John Paul helped me change everything.

“This is four years of my life that I will never get back again and I knew that I needed to make the most of it,” said Kotwicki.

Her resolve was shaken to its core, however, when cancer arrived on her family’s doorstep.

When she returned to school in the fall of her junior year her teachers noticed her grades begin to slide and that she was withdrawing from her friends and the activities that once interested her. Her faith also was put to the test.

 “I had always been very faithful as a child, but it all got lost, somehow,” she said. “It made me question God and wonder often ‘why me?’”

It was during this period of spiritual dryness at the beginning of her senior year that she found herself in the chapel.

“It was a turning point in my life,” said Kotwicki. “I was becoming someone different, and I asked myself ‘What am I doing?’ I became aware in that moment that the choices I make have a direct impact on my life, and I decided to do something about it.”

Around that time, she was taken aside by Emma Boyle, one of her teachers who told her about Marian consecration and other prayers that she could use to pray for her mom.

“The purpose of the consecration is to have a greater devotion to Mary,” said Kotwicki. “You are given a pathway to Jesus and the best way to go about it is through Mary.”

With her mom in Mary’s care, Kotwicki began taking advantage of all the opportunities John Paul the Great had to offer. She was an active member of the Service Club, a National Hispanic Merit Scholar and took on leadership roles in three honor societies: the National Honor Society, Math Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society. Kotwicki also renewed her love for the school’s bioethics classes.

“The bioethics curriculum has had a huge impact in my life,” said Kotwicki. “I now have a deeper understanding of life and people. I can’t imagine a better option than to direct my goals in service of helping others. It sounds simple, but without the bioethics classes I couldn’t even imagine where I would be today. It impacted all my goals for the future.”

Kotwicki finished her senior year at the top of her class and received the news at prom that she will be giving the valedictorian speech at this year’s graduation. This of course paled in comparison to the news that doctors have now declared her mom’s condition to be stable. While continuing to pray for her mom, Kotwicki is looking forward to starting the next chapter of her academic career studying engineering at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

"It all could have turned out very differently," said Kotwicki. "John Paul helped me change everything."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017