At the 2015 Women Celebrate retreat, on Sunday, March 15th, Mary Pribbenow introduced her mother Althea’s witness video. Below is the transcribed interview, along with an introduction from Mary. What a blessing Althea is.

 

My mom, Althea Margaret Vanden Boom, was born on February 22, 1928. Mom was a cradle Catholic. She went to church every week, said her prayers, attended Catholic grade school and loved the nuns, did all the things a good Catholic girl would do in the 1930’s and 40’s. She married my dad, Bob Valentyn, at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic church in Kimberly on August 6, 1949.

On June 29, 1950, mom’s life changed forever. She was in the eighth month of her first pregnancy. And unknown to her doctor, she had developed toxemia which became eclampsia. In layman’s terms, her kidneys totally failed and her body was full of poison. She experienced several seizures while at home; the ambulance attendants told my dad to “hold her down,” as she was experiencing seizures while on the way to the hospital too. An emergency C-section was performed and my oldest brother Mike was born. He was small and by the grace of God, healthy; none of the toxins had gotten into his little body. But my mom was near death. They didn’t think she would live.

Mom’s doctor told her later that he looked up toward heaven, and said, “I have done everything I can do.” As if to say, it’s up to you, God. After three days in a coma, mom woke up. But she had no memory. She didn’t know why she was in the hospital, didn’t remember being pregnant, didn’t recognize or know my dad.

Very slowly, her mind came back and she and Mike went to her mom’s home to be cared for so she could regain her mental and physical strength.

Mom had two miscarriages in the years immediately after Mike was born. I stand here today, the fifth of six children, all delivered by cesarean section. I have four older brothers and a younger sister. When the doctors delivered my sister Anne in 1963, the wall of mom’s uterus was so thin because of all the surgeries, they could see the hair on Anne’s head through the uterine wall. It is miraculous that mom carried Anne, her sixth baby, to term.

This is where I’ll let mom tell the rest of her story.

After my children were born, I promised God that I would do something for Him for the less fortunate; as a way to say thanks for the gift of my healthy kids and for the gift of my life.

In the mid 1960’s, holy name parish was looking for a person to teach religion to special needs children.

I told Bob, my husband, that’s my call! I promised I would do something and God is calling me to a ministry with special needs children.

I had no special training or experience with people with disabilities, but I just knew I was supposed to do it. There were no materials available, but I figured I would talk to them and teach them just like I taught my own children.

So I taught them about creation and the gift of their five senses. And we would pray together. Prayer was the key. They learned the bible is a special book, God is our Father and Jesus is our friend. They learned from me because I modeled God’s love for them. And by the grace of God, my own children and their friends learned these things too, as they came with me to class on Saturday mornings.

It wasn’t always easy to stick with it. There were days when I wondered what are they learning? What am I teaching them? But as a parent, I would think about their parents and how, for some, they were just happy to have a break from their child for a few hours on a Saturday morning. So I kept going and God provided me the strength I needed.

The program began small, but grew to encompass nine parishes from Appleton to Kaukauna, Freedom and beyond. I am humbled to say that the valley area special needs religious education (VASNRE) program continues today. I no longer lead the program, but I still attend every other Saturday to share god’s love with his special, special children.

God drew me closer to Him through my work with the special needs people. He gave me a responsibility for their faith formation and in turn, my faith was strengthened by God and by them. They showed me through their innocent, honest, real love for Jesus and for me what being a Christian is truly all about.

It is written in Matthew chapter 19 verse 14, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Amen.

Along with my commitment to the special needs religion program, I had been caring for my mom who was suffering with memory issues. In 1972, my mom came to live at our house. She decided one day that she didn’t want to go home. “I want to stay here with you,” she said. And so she did.

She lived with us for five years before her death. And when I started taking care of her, I figured I would do the best I could do, for as long as I could do it.

Caring for mom at our home really turned into a neighborhood effort. Our kids and their friends, especially Amy Vanden Boom helped grandma-sit when Bob and I would have to be gone to a meeting or social event. Near the end of her life, my mom needed to be turned every two hours to prevent bed sores. A neighbor would come over every two hours during the day to help me turn Mom.

I never would have imagined what I was able to do to help my mom, but God knew. He brought people into my life to help me and He provided an opportunity for them to grow as well. Again, prayer was a key for me. I prayed often and asked God to give me the patience, the strength, and the love to do this sometimes difficult job. There were times when I was angry and didn’t provide loving care, but God never left me.

I want people to know that when you serve, you think you are the one who is giving and providing a good and loving experience for those you serve. And that is true, but we also need to remember that the person or people we serve give just as much or more back to us by their very presence and in their own simple way.

One particular day I was soaking mom’s feet and by this time in her dementia, she was almost completely non-verbal. As I knelt to wash her feet and take care of her toe nails, I felt a gentle hand on the top of my head. My mom was patting me on the head, as if to say, “that feels good.” She was finding a way to say thank you to me…I cried. God must have known I needed that acknowledgment and I am grateful to have that memory.

Mom died in 1977 in the small back bedroom of our home on Jefferson place in Kimberly. She was surrounded by her family. And mom died very peacefully.

In 2002, I developed a very sore ankle. I doctored with it for several months and after several misdiagnoses, it was discovered that I had a severe staph infection. Immediate surgery was needed to save my foot and leg. After surgery, doctors were not sure that I would be able to keep my foot. By the grace of God and lots of medical care, including failed skin grafts and several 90 minute hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments, I still have my left foot and leg. Praise God!!!

Again, I trusted God’s plan for that foot of mine. I did what the doctors told me as far as treatment was concerned, and I prayed a lot.

My prayer is more of a conversation with Jesus than formal memorized words. There is power in just talking to God like I am talking with you now. And do I hear God talking back to me? I can’t really say that.

I always think I would like to hear what God would sound like, but you don’t need that. The power is in the peace you feel after prayer, after an action, in just knowing that you turned to Him and that He is working and it feels right.

Along with my physical challenges, my husband Bob began to struggle with the early effects of Parkinson’s disease. Bob had Parkinson’s for 12 years. The early years at home provided another opportunity for our neighbors to help. When Bob would fall, I would call Tommy Vosters over to help me lift him. It was comforting for me to know that he was just a phone call away, right across the street and always willing to help. I can’t say for sure what effect Bob’s illness had on Tom Vosters, but I am guessing God used that situation for good in Tom’s life.

Ultimately, we had to move to an assisted living apartment because I had suffered a broken hip due to my caregiving role. It was no longer possible for me to take care of Bob at home.

For almost two years we lived at the St. Paul villa and then Bob required nursing home care. He moved to the nursing home and I began living alone at Hallmark Place in Kimberly where I still live. For almost a year, I would drive daily to Kaukauna to visit Bob and spent most days with him at the nursing home. He died on July 3, 2011 and I miss him more every day.

In these golden years, there are so many empty times when I think of Bob and wish he was here. We depended on each other. We loved each other. It makes me smile, though, because Bob would probably say, “Leave me alone. I’m happy where I am!”

 

But when I get sad and lonesome for dad, I remind myself that I have God. I am not alone. I have never been alone.

 

I am reminded of the theme for celebrate this year. “Fan into flame the gift of God that is in you.” God is in you and he is in me. Right here. Close as our breath. Listen for him. Pay attention to his presence. Ask him to show you what His will for you is.

 

Take it from me, He never disappoints, He never abandons you. He loves you! He has gifted each of you! It’s a great comfort to know that God has promised and His promises are true. In Deuteronomy 31:6 it reads “Do not be afraid…for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” And again scripture promises in Isaiah 49:16 “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

 

Keep learning and growing and loving Him and one another. Thank you!