How the Zach Sutherland & Kaya Firth Resiliency Foundation Came to Be

Kaya and Zach lived lives filled with love, connection, hope and laughter. Both the eldest of three, they brought these qualities to their close relationships with their younger brothers, their parents, their friends, their extended families and to all the lives they touched.

In 2016, at age 21, full of optimism for their shared future and about to complete their undergraduate degrees at the University of Guelph, Zach and Kaya both passed tragically in a freak kayaking accident on the Credit river. Our families came together in our grief and were held and surrounded by incredible love and support from each other and those close to us. Our first priority as parents was to somehow try to make sure that their brothers and close friends felt supported in their grief.  We quickly understood that we had no fix, no remedy, no solutions and could not take away either their pain or our own.  So, we did our best to surround them with unconditional love and trusted in their, and our own, ability to heal from within. 

We came to discover, and are still reminded often, that there is no “correct” way to grieve and no fast-track. Grief is messy. We learned that resources that may be incredibly helpful to one person are not at all helpful to another, and that everyone’s experience of loss and of grief is incredibly unique.  Slowly, as we grieved individually and together, sought healthy expressions for our grief and learned how to carry it, we came to discover just how diverse the paths of grief were for everyone affected by this tragedy.  We realized that the commonality for navigating the grief was that constellation of traits that Zach and Kaya embodied: Love, Hope and Connection, and that these are what create the conditions for resilience to grow.

We discovered that our stories about how we got here, how things came to be this way, can lead to the bigger question of why. When that question is unanswerable, in that space beyond reason and logic – that is when our stories matter most. It is those stories, arising from deep within our brains, our bodies, our souls, that either haunt us or guide us. In discovering our stories for ourselves, in sharing them, not for the impact they will have to educate, instruct or guide another, but rather for the purpose of bringing them into the light of day so that we can see for ourselves what is within us allows us to sift through our assumptions about the world and about ourselves. Then we can make our own choices about how we want to live our lives.

One year after the accident our families wanted to honour Zach and Kaya by sharing the message from their lives of Love, Hope and Connection and to give back to the community that had supported us in our darkest hours. We created a scholarship to recognize resilience in young people who had also faced a life-altering loss. It was our hope that by providing recognition and a platform to share and learn from their stories of resilience, there would be a ripple effect of helping more young people find their path through grief to healing.

When we shared our idea with the Biehn family, it resonated so deeply with them that they suggested hosting a golf tournament to bring together people who knew and love Zach and Kaya and wanted to participate in the tournament to honour them and to support the scholarship. This was the greatest gift, as it added that final element that was so essential in Zach and Kaya’s lives: Laughter.

Since then, friends, family, community members, donors, sponsors, applicants and recipients have helped to grow this initiative into a registered Canadian Charity that to date has awarded nearly $40,000 in post-secondary scholarships, remains completely volunteer-run and awards annual scholarships to resilient youth across Canada.

Together, we Choose 2 Be Resilient.