Samuel: Against the Odds
At 20 weeks of pregnancy, Kim and her husband Kory went to their ultrasound appointment filled with excitement. They left with news that no parent would ever want to hear – something was wrong with their unborn son, Samuel. Seriously wrong. He was diagnosed with Heterotaxy Syndrome, an extremely rare congenital birth defect that affects just four babies in a million.
Heterotaxy Syndrome, in simple terms, is when the body’s major organs develop in different locations than they should, resulting in complex anomalies and complications. In Samuel’s case, his heart wasn’t formed properly, leaving him essentially with a two-chambered heart. In addition, the placement of his stomach and intestines put him at serious risk for digestive and bowel complications.
“Less than 25% of kids make it to their first birthday with the type of anomalies he had in conjunction with the Heterotaxy Syndrome,” remembers Kim with tears that still come easily when she talks about that dark time and how they tried to absorb the news. “It was definitely not what we expected.”
Today, however, Samuel is still not what they expected… in a good way! He is four years old and an independent, active little boy. He loves to play outside with his older sister, Lily, and is a great eater who is fond of pickles, olives and especially chips and guacamole. By looking at him, you would never know this little boy has endured three major surgeries as a result of his diagnosis and will likely one day need a heart transplant. The only hint, obvious only to Kim, is that sometimes he pauses between words when he speaks.
“Some people might think he’s trying to think of what to say next, but I know that he’s catching his breath,” said Kim. “The surgeries changed the way his heart flows, and he has a pacemaker now. There were definitely some big anatomical changes to his cardiac output after those surgeries. Both were very long and tough surgeries to endure.”
When babies like Samuel undergo major surgery, particularly around the trunk, they can become hesitant to use that part of the body because it’s painful. Kim knew from her own work, overseeing special needs programs at the YMCA at Pabst Farms in Oconomowoc, how vital early intervention was, so Samuel began physical therapy almost immediately through the Lutheran Social Services Birth to 3 program.
Once a month, physical therapist Lee Wolf came to Samuel’s house for therapy appointments. Kim wanted to be hands-on, so Lee taught Kim the exercises so she could work with Samuel between visits.
“Lee was amazing,” Kim said. “She really helped us throughout the journey and provided emotional support.” That support extended beyond the prescribed therapy to include encouragement that lifted up the whole family. Lee went out of her way to identify outside resources and other support networks for the family that were outside the scope of physical therapy.
Kim explained: “Samuel was a horrible sleeper. When he was baby, we had to wake him up every three hours to feed him, and the waking became a habit. Lee brought us CDs to help him sleep, and she was so caring and nurturing and really listened.”
She also set big goals for Samuel, which included climbing stairs, trunk rotation and overall strength. It became a true family affair.
“She gave me a plan of things to work on for the next month. Even Lily would get involved, and do the therapy right alongside Samuel. It became a fun family thing.”
Kim is grateful to Lee and to Lutheran Social Services. “Our experience was more than you can imagine,” she said. “You can get therapy from a lot of different places, but with Lutheran Social Services it was such a well-rounded, caring approach.”
Damarlo Breaks Free From His Past
The calls aren’t frequent, but they always seem to come at the right time. Carrie Miller, a program supervisor at Homme, recently received a call from Damarlo, a former resident of the 200-acre campus who was also her very first client. He called to check in, reconnect, tell Carrie about what was happening in his life, and then he went on to share his memories of his time at Homme. The call from Damarlo encouraged and reminded her, particularly on that tough day, that the work she does with the kids at Homme is truly changing lives. It certainly changed the course of Damarlo’s life.
Damarlo was just 10 years old when Carrie met him, but he was volatile, violent and angry. That led to a variety of problems with his mother, who couldn’t control him, and eventually to the criminal justice system. He was referred to Homme Youth and Family Program, Lutheran Social Service’s nationally-known treatment program for children and adolescents dealing with issues of sexual perpetration, delinquency, victimization, alcohol and drug abuse, cognitive behavioral issues or dual diagnosis, and independent living support. He was supposed to be there for 45 days; he stayed for almost a year.
Located in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, the campus is a sprawling landscape of serene woods and streams dotted with multiple residential buildings that house young men and women. Residents receive counseling as they face problems and trauma that has occurred in their lives with the help of therapists, staff and family members – all who are committed to walking alongside them. The kids and teenagers that come to Homme are tough. They typically have endured tumultuous childhoods. The only feeling that many of them can express is anger.
Damarlo was placed at Nelson Hall, but he did not want to be there – that was obvious. As he flailed against the restraints that had to be placed on him multiple times a day because of his violent outbursts, he caught the attention of Carrie, who was a brand new therapist at Homme. As she walked by, she was surprised and a little shook up by what she saw.
“It was my first day at Nelson Hall, and Damarlo was my first client. When I first saw him, he was restrained, and the words that were coming out of his mouth were shocking,” said Carrie. “To see a boy that young acting like that was eye opening to me.”
Carrie’s supervisor wondered if she would even come back the next day, but leaving was never a thought in her mind. She knew this was what she wanted to do.
As she began to spend time with Damarlo, details of his troubled past slowly began to spill out. He lived with his mom in Minnesota, but housing and finances weren’t always stable. He didn’t know his father, and that was painful. Eventually, after committing a serious assault, he was referred to Homme by the criminal justice system.
For first six months, Damarlo refused to trust anyone on the staff.
“I didn’t like it there,” he explained simply. “I missed my family.”
He tried running away numerous times, and he would fight and throw or break things. He was out of control. As time went on, however, Damarlo began to trust Carrie. They traveled back to his home in Minnesota to see his mom, and Carrie made arrangements for her to come to Wittenberg and stay at one of Homme’s duplexes so she could see her young son, and they could work together in family therapy sessions. Little by little, he started to talk, and they began to get to the core of the hurt that was filling him with anger.
“I think what makes Homme different,” noted Carrie, “is that we have a trauma-sensitive approach. At our staff meetings, we get emotional because we are putting everything we have into the kids. We try to establish normalcy in their lives, and we treat them like children who have made a mistake and not criminals. We try to inspire them to look forward to the future but also face any past trauma so they can learn why it’s affecting their behavior. Family involvement is huge for success.”
As he opened up to Carrie and ultimately, his mother in family sessions, his negative reactions subsided. Damarlo doesn’t remember a specific moment or event that triggered it, but he started to see the rewards of following the rules at Nelson Hall.
“I realized if I didn’t get my stuff together, I was going to be there forever,” said Damarlo. “I started listening and behaving. When I started doing good things, I was able to do activities and go on outings. If I was talking to someone staying at Homme now, I would tell them to trust and give people a chance. If I had done that right away, I would have been home sooner.”
Today there are more than 40 children and adolescents at Homme. Some come for respite care and are there just 30 days. Others stay for 6-9 months, and a few have been there for several years. Most attend the alternative school at Homme, and some of the older residents are part of a work program. All are assigned chores, and they learn to work with and respect others.
“After a while, it was a big family,” explained Damarlo.
Monte Smith, the spiritual counselor at Homme, is there to provide whatever the residents or staff need spiritually. At 55 years old, Monte, a former youth counselor who worked for many years in the corporate world, is so grateful to have the opportunity to return to youth ministry: “Homme is the best job I’ve ever had.” He holds prayer services, and although the residents are not required to attend, many do and respond when he asks for prayer requests. He remembered a recent time when he ended the service and two residents asked if they could stay and pray awhile more.
“Our job is to plant the seed, water it, and wait for the harvest. Only God knows how to make it grow.”
When Damarlo left Homme in 2009, he went to live with his grandparents. At first, he began to run with the wrong crowd again.
“I fussed at him and his grandpa lectured him, but it was Damarlo who turned it around on his own,” his grandmother admitted.
Damarlo, in turn, credits his grandparents with keeping him on the right track. “My grandma and grandpa are always there. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Now, this self-proclaimed “city boy” lives in a rural area with his grandparents. They have dogs, chickens and hope to have cows, too, one day. He attends high school and plans to play football next year. His grandmother looks forward to the day he graduates because he will be the first grandchild to earn a high school diploma.
“That will be the proudest moment of my life,” she said.
Damarlo likes to learn new things with his grandpa, who is a jack-of-all-trades. The teenager can run a chain saw, install flooring, and has even taught himself how to train dogs.
“I like to soak stuff in, learn as much as I can and do things I’ve never done,” said Damarlo. He still has the journals from his time at Homme, and he is typing them up, with the help of his English teacher, in hopes that they can one day be published into a book that tells the story of his life and his time at Homme.
As for long-term goals, Damarlo wants to join the military where he can use his love of building things in an engineering career. He would also like to return to Homme one day and help kids who are going through what he was.
“Learn from your mistakes,” said Damarlo, when asked what he would tell those children. “Nobody is perfect. Life is all about choices, and there’s a consequence for everything you do.”
Never Too Late: Rick’s Redemption
Rick Olson finds old things that have been discarded, but still have value. He washes them clean, and gives them a second chance to be useful by donating them to people in need. That picture is really the story of what happened in his own life.
Rick grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and said he “chased” drugs and alcohol nearly his entire life. He was severely addicted, and moved from one friend’s couch to another, eventually ending up homeless. He was at the end of himself, suicidal and alone. Until he wasn’t.
“My rock bottom was when my uncle found me living in an ice fishing shanty, drunk and on drugs. He said ‘Rick, help is out there.’”
A Turning Point
That was 2009. When Rick’s Uncle Dave, who he describes as a father figure to him, found him holed up in that abandoned shack, he convinced him to get help. He drove Rick to Marquette General Hospital, where he was admitted to the psychiatric unit for 14 days. During that difficult time, all Rick could do was cry. But as the tears poured down his face, something clicked, and Rick made the decision to turn his life around. When he was discharged, he had just $8 in his pocket, and he went to a nearby halfway house. It was there that he saw a flyer for Lutheran Social Services. He reached out and met Sarah Fogaroli, a counselor.
“Drugs and alcohol were my whole life before LSS.”
Sarah told Rick they could give him the tools to build a life for himself if he stayed clean. “That was my turning point,” said Rick.
Rick met with Sarah once a week for a full year. She introduced him to his first AA meeting, helped him successfully apply for Social Security through SOAR, a program that increases access to benefits for eligible applicants who are homeless, and then coached him in basic everyday skills he had never learned before.
“LSS taught me life skills, from banking to using a checkbook to shopping for groceries; I knew none of this!”
At 51 years old, Rick signed a lease and paid rent for his first apartment. He was no longer homeless or desperate. But he was grateful – so he began to do whatever he could to help the people and the community who had given him a second chance.
“Rick is constantly giving back to LSS,” said Sarah. “I have never seen anything like it, but he has donated thousands of home goods and clothing items that have helped others in need. He has a big heart, and we are thankful for all he has given.”
Several times a year, when the local college kids move out, he scouts for things that could help others. He refurbished a wooden dresser, and donated it, and he brought to LSS Christmas decorations he found for families who otherwise couldn’t afford any.
“Sarah at LSS literally would spend hours convincing me that I could volunteer and give back. One day, I saw a woman shoveling in front of her storefront, and for a year I helped her,” said Rick.
She didn’t have the money to pay him, but he continued to do it anyway for the entire winter. “Now I have a part-time job at her shop as a handyman.” Rick jokingly calls it the “girly store.”
Twice a month, Rick also volunteers on the rehabilitation floor at Marquette General Hospital and with teens at Great Lakes Recovery, a treatment center for those addicted to drugs and alcohol. His story is one of brutal honesty, but also one of hope. “I share my story of misery, and then where I am today,” said Rick.
As Rick has remained firmly on the path of sobriety, he has also become a trusted member of the community and skilled in managing his life and his finances. Sarah showed him how to email, and he recently saved up and bought himself a computer and printer. He’s also purchased new dentures and a hearing aid, both on payment plans.
Rick credits LSS for its role in giving him the stepping stones he needed to have a new, better life.
“I’ll always be grateful for how they accepted me as me and didn’t try to make me someone I wasn’t. LSS did not just help me change my life; they forever changed a part of me.”
Meet LSS Foundation Board Member Patricia Wesner
When Patricia Wesner decided to close the door on her successful 29-year banking career, God was opening windows elsewhere at the exact same time. One of those windows was the LSS Foundation Board.
Pat was preparing to leave a senior-level position at U.S. Bank that required her to travel 45 weeks a year. Because she spent nearly as much time outside of Wisconsin as in it, she felt she was losing touch with what was happening locally. She looked forward to trading in her business suit for jeans and her frequent flyer miles for time at home and the opportunity to work with her husband in his residential construction business.
It was around that time that Pat was approached by Bob Seidel, who was the chairperson of the LSS Foundation board and a longtime friend. The LSS Foundation is a separate organization from LSS that supports the LSS mission of changing lives through fundraising and donor engagement. When he learned that Pat would be leaving her banking job, he lobbied her to join him on the foundation board. That was more than five years ago, and she remains deeply committed to the foundation and the work it does.
“On the Board, we hear about all the good things being done by LSS,” said Pat. “Our job is to raise funds and attract donors so more good work can be done. There is a great opportunity for the foundation to do more and to be more strategic in its approach.”
She recently led a nationwide search for a new president for the LSS Foundation, and Cynthia Halverson was chosen out of a deep field of candidates. Cynthia came on board in March, and will direct a comprehensive, organization-wide advancement program to enable it to provide financial support to further LSS’s mission, vision and values. Her responsibilities include marketing, communications and fund development, as well as church, community and public relations outreach.
“LSS has a very positive vibe in the nonprofit arena,” explained Pat. “That made the search for a president very nice. We had great candidates, and that is, in part, because of LSS’s legacy. It was the right time to bring on a new president, and Cynthia will add more horsepower to the group and help us take things up a notch.”
As Pat introduces Cynthia to LSS and its leaders and programs, she notes that she, too, is growing her own relationships with senior leaders, and wants to become an even better board member this year to further the work of LSS.
“There are so many negative things going on in the world that it’s easy to lose sight of the good, wonderful things happening, like families being made better and people who are valued and not lost in the shuffle. LSS has such a legacy.”
Now that the search for a new president has wrapped up, you might expect Pat to take some time to pursue the hobbies she’s surely accumulated in her retirement, but she laughs and says simply, “We don’t do free time.”
Her husband is beginning to wind down his construction business, and together they are busy remodeling a 1940s home in Whitefish Bay and spending time with his three daughters and four grandchildren. She admits that their vacation last fall was the first one they’d taken since 2006.
When asked what’s on her bucket list for 2015, she says they are starting small - they hope to get out and ride their bikes as the weather turns warm.
“We are going to start with that.”