by Jill Ragar Esfeld
SHAWNEE — St. Joseph parishioner Cathy Miller hasn’t taken a shower in several years; neither have her four daughters. The shower stopped working back in 2003.
Laundry has been a problem, too. The washing machine no longer fills itself, so the girls have to haul buckets in from the bathroom to fill it themselves.
At the beginning of this year, the rest of the Millers’ home was in similar disrepair — a collection of broken cabinets, peeling paint, wood rot, mold and water-damaged sheet rock.
A single mom trying to support her daughters on a teacher’s salary, Miller knew her house was literally falling down around them.
But she didn’t care. She had bigger problems to deal with.
Her daughter Christina, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, collapsed last January. She was hospitalized at Children’s Mercy and, from January to mid-March, underwent 11 surgeries.
“To be honest,” said Miller, “we thought we were looking at a funeral in March.”
Christina and her twin sister Anastacia were born prematurely. Christina suffered from a condition called hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid inside the skull, leading to brain swelling. In the last 18 years, she has undergone 32 surgeries.
“Christina has had a shunt in her head since she was six weeks old to control the hydrocephalus,” her mother said.
When she was four years old, Christina had cranial expansion surgery to relieve pressure on her brain. This year, Dr. Greg Hornig, the chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Mercy, determined that she needed it again.
“Her brain was essentially too big for her skull, and it was being squeezed to the point where she was not able to function,” explained Miller.
The surgery, performed by Hornig, is so rare that the observatory of Christina’s operating room was standing room only. Miller gave a layman’s synopsis of the procedure.
“They went in and cut out the top of her scull cap,” she said. “They cut it into pieces and then carved out the inside of the bone to make room for her brain.
“Then they put it back into place on the brain and stapled her back up.”
The operation was successful. Christina has been free of headaches and neurological problems ever since. “I’m just so glad to be done with it,” she said. “It just seems like I was never at school. And when I was at school, I wasn’t really there.”
But success came at a price. In order to be with her daughter during the 10 weeks she was hospitalized, Miller had to take time off without pay.
By that time, home improvements were the last thing on Miller’s mind. Money had gotten so tight, she couldn’t even meet her mortgage payment.
But that’s where members of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee and the St. Thomas Aquinas community stepped in.
Families took turns supplying meals, and helping to care for Ana, also a senior at Aquinas, and her younger sisters Elizabeth and Caterina, students at St. Joseph.
Both schools held fundraisers to help the Millers meet their financial obligations.
“I just felt like they totally wrapped their arms around all of us and took great care of us,” said Miller. “It was God’s angels looking out for us.”
And fortunately, one of those angels decided the Millers needed a lot more than meals and a mortgage payment.
Taking care of our own
If God has hands and a heart in Kansas, they belong to Hank Bednar, a member of St. Joseph Parish and owner of Bednar Interiors Remodeling and Design.
In addition to being an active supporter of Christmas in October, Bednar is involved in Rebuild Shawnee Together, an organization that provides repair and renovation assistance to Shawnee homeowners in need (see sidebar).
Bednar, a longtime friend of Miller’s, encouraged her to apply to have her home refurbished by the organization. When Miller was approved, Bednar volunteered to head up the remodeling project.
“Depending on the scope of work, the houses are allocated a certain amount of funds,” he explained. “And then they like the house captain to raise money for the projects also.”
As captain, Bednar raised money, donations of supplies and product, and an army of volunteers.
St. Joseph parishioners who had done Christmas in October with Bednar for many years were happy to turn out for the Miller renovation project as well.
“The one thing my mom loves about St. Joe is the sense of community,” said Christina. “There are just so many people who are willing to help out — and we have been helped.”
Bednar said he never ceases to be amazed by the wealth of talent his fellow parishioners are willing to share.
“They’re the best,” he said. “There are so many different people who have backgrounds in trade. We have plumbers and carpenters and contractors that all step up and contribute. When you see that, it really moves you.”
Bednar also got help from fellow members of NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) and sent out e-mails that got responses from many people outside the St. Joseph community.
“I’m getting volunteers from Aquinas and St. James [Academy in Lenexa], and a lot of other people from Shawnee,” he said. “Everybody has stepped up to the plate.”
Because the home repair project was so extensive, Bednar knew it would go much faster if the Miller family could move into temporary housing elsewhere.
He was thinking about that one night when he drove by the home of his high school youth minister, Joan Greene, a parishioner of St. Joseph.
“I drove by and something told me to stop and talk to her,” he recalled.
“They got to talking about this project at my house,” explained Miller. “And Joan said, ‘Well, I have a four-bedroom rental house that is sitting empty.’”
Green offered the Millers the use of her rental house while their home was being repaired.
Miller called it one more little miracle. “God winked at me,” Bednar agreed.
Once the Millers were moved into their temporary home, Rebuild Shawnee Together got to work.
“They stripped my house down to bare bones,” said Miller. “Everything has been stripped out.”
Indeed, the Miller home is being completely renovated inside and out — including new siding, new windows and a new deck.
Best of all, everything will work!
“I’m very excited about what they’re doing,” said Christina
“I’m not a materialistic person,” her mother added. “So it’s never taken much to make me happy or content. But it will be nice to have things that work.”
The family visits their future home every night after school and on weekends to lend helping hands wherever they can.
“And there’s always tons of people working,” said Miller.
Christina hopes the house will be renovated in time for a graduation party. Bednar is trying his best to make that happen.
He said his Catholic faith is the motivation behind his desire to help the Millers and others like them.
“I just feel like our family is so blessed because I have healthy children and a good wife,” he said. “And when I see other kids that don’t have as much, I think, ‘What can you do to help them?’
“I’ve always just believed that if you leave everything up to God, he kind of directs you throughout your day,” he con- tinued. “The good Lord — you give him yourself and he gives you back much more in return.”
St. Joseph pastor Father Michael Hawken visited the renovation project over the weekend of Good Shepherd Sunday. He was moved by the sight of so many parish members working together.
“This work is truly an example of the shepherd taking care of his sheep, through the rest of his flock doing his work,” he said.
“I’ve been a firm believer in, if I do what God has given me the ability to do, he will open doors for me to survive,” she said. “And that’s exactly what has happened.
“I have realized that there are many people out there that love me and my daughters,” she added. “To me, that’s Christ working.”