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Angel families share memories PDF Print E-mail
Written by Brenda Johnson Brandt   
As of this week, seven families, linked only by their loss of a child, have bonded in a positive way to help lead the way for Holyoke to show its children that the community cares.

Focusing on My Little Angel Toy Drive, working through Phillips County Dept. of Social Services and Zion Lutheran Church, the families are the inspiration for an opportunity for giving.

The seven angels represented through their family’s involvement follow:


Lonnie Alan Rueter — Oct. 8, 1970-Nov. 13, 1970

Lauri Gibbs’ 5-week-old son Lonnie died the next morning after receiving a clean bill of health at his one-month doctor visit. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was the cause.

“When I heard about My Little Angel Toy Drive, I thought, ‘What a neat thing,’” said Gibbs. She noted she never got the opportunity to give Lonnie any Christmas gifts, “and I have 40 years of gifts to give.”

Helping children who, through no fault of their own, might not otherwise enjoy a merry Christmas is great reason for involvement, added Gibbs.


Todd Michael Kramer — Sept. 15, 1982-Nov. 2, 1984

Details of Karin and Randy Kramer’s son Todd’s diagnosis of neuroblastoma on May 4, 1984, and the next six months of his life are recalled with clarity by his family.

Considering all the heartache of watching a 2-year-old suffer as he undergoes chemotherapy, total body irradiation and a bone marrow transplant, Karin expressed her focus of all the blessings seen in Todd’s short life.

Community support was mentioned again and again, and Kramer is extremely glad for this chance to return the gifts of giving so genuinely offered to her family 25 years ago.

When bone marrow transplant was the route for young Todd, his older siblings were tested, knowing there was only 25 percent chance for a tissue match. For big brother Bret and sister Kandi to both test as exact matches was a true blessing for the family.

Kandi was selected as the bone marrow donor, as she has a female chromosome they could use as a marker in the transplant.

Four months of preparation for the transplant included anti-cancer drugs to cause the neuroblastoma to become smaller, and then surgery involving intraoperative radiation to remove the tumor in Todd’s chest. The Kramers then flew to Los Angeles, Calif. for the transplant which took place Sept. 27.

While the transplant was successful, the process (fairly new at the time) had been very hard on Todd’s organs, and five weeks later, he died, while still in L.A.

“Time after time, we got to see the good in people,” said Kramer, recalling their experience as if it happened yesterday.

Kramer’s faith sustained her then and now. She cites her Catholic upbringing and the peace it gives her to know that Todd was born two days after she went into labor, on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, and he died on All Souls Day.

She distinctly recalls her prayers 25 years ago, on Nov. 1, asking God for Todd to live. Karin said she suddenly heard a clear voice telling her, “If you just let me, he won’t have to suffer.” Todd died 12 hours later.


Brett Aaron Hielscher — July 4, 1988-July 4, 1988

Gail and Rich Hielscher desire to honor the memory of their son Brett, who was stillborn on the Fourth of July 21 years ago.

Helping other children have a memorable Christmas, in honor of their own son, is important to them, said Gail. They appreciate the idea for the Toy Drive that has united the community in a helpful way.


Westyn Rhesa Struckmeyer — March 17, 2005-July 17, 2006

Pam and Damon Struckmeyer are glad for the opportunity to connect with and help families going through the loss of a child.

That has been their focus since losing their 16-month-old son Westyn in a tragic drowning three summers ago.

My Little Angel Toy Drive is an extension of the “reaching out” they’ve tried to do as new families experience the tragedy that they faced and continue to live with.


Justin Paul Strode — Aug. 21, 1991-Nov. 13, 2008

Justin Strode was a very “giving” child, said his mother Paula. He was always giving his toys away, and when he got his first driver’s license, he chose to be designated as a donor of organs.

As a result, Justin’s tragic death, with unknown reasons, at age 17, found two people with renewed eyesight as a result of cornea transplants from Justin. Another man has communicated his thanks to Strode for her son’s generosity, as he can walk again.

In that same giving spirit, Strode feels a connection with her son as she supports the My Little Angel effort. “I think it’s a blessing to be able to give to little children to show them love and compassions and that people care,” added Strode.


Ethan Murray — Jan. 29, 2009-Jan. 29, 2009

What started as a normal pregnancy for Josie and Brett Murray over a year ago ended in emergency when no heartbeat was found at Josie’s 20-week check-up. Baby Ethan was born and died almost a year ago.

Turning their tragedy into a community gift has been the Murray focus for dealing with their grief.

Along with youngsters Stephen, Mathew and Daniel, Josie and Brett donated an aquarium for patients to enjoy at Family Practice of Holyoke. The donation was given in memory of son and brother Ethan.

In that same spirit, the Murrays sought to include other families who have suffered the loss of a child. As a result, My Little Angel Toy Drive was born.

As new people get on board and new ideas are shared and implemented, the project has progressed to a wonderful community endeavor. Josie refuses to take credit for spearheading the effort, but is quick to acknowledge the support and response from so many who care.


Marie Isabel Schlachter — March 3, 2007-Aug. 28, 2009

This will be the first Christmas without Marie for Shannon and Luke Schlachter and their family.

Diagnosed with Leigh’s Disease, a progressive neurometabolic disorder, when she was 7 months old, Marie’s development was not normal. In the care of her loving and caring family, Marie lived to be almost 2 1/2 when she died in late August.

Shannon said they see this My Little Angel Toy Drive as a way to do something for Marie, for her memory.

They are extremely appreciative of the community support, and from their church family at Zion Lutheran, in particular. “It’s nice to be able to give back,” Schlachter added.

Citing the large community need for support, Schlachter noted it feels good to be doing something to make a difference.