Circle of hope

August 4, 2008

One day, one night, one community

By Jen Bakken
Staff Writer

This year, the Delano Relay for Life raised the highest amount it has since its beginning four years ago. So far, more than $103,000 has been raised, and donations are still being received.

Cancer affects millions of people around the world, and has touched the lives of many Delano residents, including Jeanne and Gary Zitzloff.

Circle of Hope is the name of their Relay for Life team, and this year, the team raised more than $7,000, putting them in first place for fund raising out of the 32 teams in Delano.

These funds are used by the American Cancer Society for research, providing transportation for cancer patients to treatment sessions, and sometimes offers assistance with medical bills, along with funding support groups for caregivers.

Circle of Hope’s slogan, “One day, one night, one community,” holds special meaning to them.

“This year is tough,” said Gary Zitzloff. “In eight years, we’ve lost four immediate family members to cancer. Three parents and a brother, not to mention other family members, friends, and neighbors who have dealt with cancer in one way or another.”

The American Cancer Society Relay for Life celebrates those who have battled cancer, as well as remembers those who have lost their lives as a result of it.

This year, Jeanne and Gary were the event’s honorary caregivers. They each gave a speech during the event, and when Gary mentioned the support he received from Ridgeview Home Care and Hospice, he couldn’t help becoming choked up with emotion.

Caregiving is something this couple knows all too well, and though it has been difficult over the years, they do not have any complaints or regrets.

“It was difficult,” said Jeanne Zitzloff. “But, it was just like, hey this is how it has to be. You do what you gotta do. That’s our story.”

Their story involves countless hours caring for Gary’s parents, who lived right next door. First, his mother, JoAnn Zitzloff, began her battle with non-smoker’s lung cancer.

Jeanne would give her medications and shots in the morning, Gary would take her to afternoon chemotherapy and radiation appointments and, towards the end, Gary stayed with his mother through the night and turned her every 15 minutes.

His mother had wished to spend her last days at home, and their caregiving efforts helped make this possible.

JoAnn lost her less than two-year battle with cancer in July 2001, and Gary’s brother, David, found out he had kidney cancer the next month, and their father, Art, learned he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a few months later.

Jeanne’s father, Richard Klaers, also struggled with four types of cancer before his death five years ago.

“It was all just right on top of one another,” remembered Jeanne. “Luckily, we both had understanding employers, had each other, and our kids were great.”

They have three children, John who is 27 years old, and twins, Julie and Jason, who are 25 years old. From donating gifts to fund raising, their children are also involved with the Relay for Life.

Jeanne has been the office manager for Culligan in Buffalo for nearly 13 years. Garym who has worked for Graco, in northeast Minneapolis, as a machinist for 30 years, is the caretaker for Cherub Corner and St. Joe’s Church, and has been a member of the Delano Fire Department for almost 22 years.

Being a fireman is a Zitzloff family tradition. Gary’s father spent 34 years with the local department, and his brother, Dave, spent nearly 29 years on the Delano Fire Department.

Dave’s two sons are fireman as well. Steve Zitzloff is on the Delano Fire Department and Brad Zitzloff is on the Buffalo Fire Department.

Though Gary had his experience as a firefighter to draw from, it really couldn’t have prepared him to become a caregiver.

“You just aren’t trained to do things like that for a family member,” he said. “The fire department is an extended family. They helped and knew what I was going through.”

There are many responsibilities a caregiver takes on such as helping with medications, personal hygiene, meals, shopping, cleaning, yard work, transportation, helping with bills, and offering emotional support.

One may wonder how this couple has kept their sanity throughout these past years and, although they are grateful to their family, friends, neighbors, and employers, they are also thankful for their much needed getaways.

“Thank God for Duluth,” said Gary. “We had to be able to get away sometimes. You can’t do this (caregiving) twenty-four/seven. I think the last couple years we were up there 18 times a year.”

Sitting in the couple’s dining room, one notices the many framed photographs on the walls. Jeanne has always loved photography, and they can tell you where every single picture is from.

“Last year, David wanted pictures taken, and even though the posing was tough for him, we spent an entire Sunday taking pictures,” remembered Jeanne. “He passed away that (following) Wednesday.”

In the pictures, there is an old Knott fire truck behind them – the truck their father, Art, had chromed before he retired. It had laid in pieces for 10 years, but Jeanne and Gary pieced it together like a giant jig-saw puzzle.

“He never got to see it put together,” said Gary.

For this Delano family, it all ties together, because of their selfless acts and dedicated caregiving.

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