In Search Of…Hope Lives (part 2)

A look at how one idea can impact so many lives

IN 2008 Johnny Brevik knew if he survived his battle with leukemia, he wanted to do more with his life. “I remember laying in the hospital bed on my first night there and thinking, ‘ok John if this is your last night, are you ok with how you lived your first 23 years?’ And I remember thinking, ‘nope. I’m not good with where I’m at and if this was it I would be supremely disappointed with how I spent 23 years.”

Years earlier Garrett Jerue fought his own battle with cancer and also wanted to do more…maybe help the next young adult in a department full of kids. “I was the oldest being seen in the pediatric oncology department and I didn’t really have anyone my own age to talk to. That’s kind of where the idea came for creating this program for people in the La Crosse community to have an outreach to be able to work through, from start to finish with a diagnosis.”

Their introduction came thanks to pediatric oncologist Dr. Bob Ettinger. “They’re both young leaders in this community and they both based on their own experience hey both based on their experience want very much to give back. So it was almost inevitable that they meet.”

But no one, not even Garrett or Johnny could have predicted where this new partnership would lead. Before their initial meeting, Garrett had received a 5000 dollar grant from the Gundersen Medical Foundation, and from that, ‘A Bump in the Road’ was born. It’s a support group and mentorship program for young adults impacted by cancer. “That money would be there for the getting together events. The interactions so that there wasn’t a financial burden or worry.”

Events like this one at Shenanigans where you can surround yourself with people who just get it and suddenly the unknown is a little easier to face. Nikki Pfeifer is a mentor in the program. “It’s something really special. We have this connection. It’s like we’re brothers and sisters. It’s past a friendship.” Kristine Clark is also a member, “these are some of the most amazing individuals that you will meet. Everyone has a different outlook on life and no one takes a second for granted.”

But the mentorship program was only the  beginning. Johnny got an idea for something even bigger. “I had so many offers for help. I had a great job, great health insurance, great family to take care of me. Didn’t need all the financial help that everyone was offering and the food and things to do, although the Sudoku books were appreciated. I just didn’t need all that. And I had always told people we will do something for a good cause when I’m done.”

“Then we started working on this party idea that was Johnny’s idea that was kind of a celebration of his beating cancer that was called ‘Hope Lives Here.'”

It’s a fundraising dinner and auction with a twist. “If you want to host a table, pick whatever theme you want. Pick whatever silverware you want. Make your people dress up. We thought that would be fun. As the years have gone by it has gotten much more elaborate and extravagant.”

The event was a huge success. “We almost hit 60 thousand dollars in funding that first year.”

So the next challenge, what to do with all that money? The answer landed them back to where Johnny and Garrett first met, the pediatric oncology department at Gundersen that already had a fun and fabulous area for younger kids. “But we wanted to do something neat in an area that was going to work for teens and for young adults.”

Dr. Ettinger describes the old area, “It was dark. It was dingy. It wasn’t very inviting or comforting.” 

From where it started to where it ended has been quite the renovation. Everything down to the fabric. Yeah, we went chair testing. Recliner shopping. We have good taste…I think so.”

What is now known as the ‘Hope Lives Foundation’ has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Boys and Girls Club’s ‘Adopt a child program’ is just one of the recipients and a few years ago the two organizations partnered for one of the brightest events in town. “Glow in the Deke turned in to a big night fun run/walk with a concert and a party.”

“It was an opportunity to do something really cool, partner with a great group for a guy who went before his time and left his mark on many people on this community.”

And funds raised there have helped several more projects, like a scholarship program for college students who have or are facing cancer.

They also established a collaboration with the YMCA to physically help patients bounce back after treatment.  “We fund the Livestrong program with all the trainers at the Y. When a trainer meets with someone under thirty, we pay for the 24 sessions with that trainer and really any extra’s that they need so really they can get back to feeling normal.”

And speaking of the Y, thanks to a generous donation part of the La Crosse Y expansion will include a new home for the Hope Lives foundation.

“We took a 5000 grant seven years ago and through all the people that have supported us we have now raised 400,000. And so that has been fun to watch.”

“We thought at the beginning, ‘if we could just raise $15,000 we could do some great things for cancer patients at Gundersen. And through the unbelievable generosity of this community we’ve been able to do so much more and if it were my last night now, I’d be ok with it.”

But for all the money and events and projects they’ve done, at the heart of this program is the reason it got started.  To be there for those people who are right now facing the fight of their lives.