A second shot…

A second shot…

JT Townsend visits the Parks after Brett’s brush with a robber and point blank gun shot to the abdomen.

It has been five years since I took the call from JT. He had just heard a report on the news. A young Navy man and personal trainer was visiting a client in a Jacksonville apartment complex when he heard a scream from behind the fitness complex and ran to see if he could help. He stepped right into the middle of a robbery in progress. The robber shot him point blank range in the abdomen, a near fatal wound. In a split second, this young husband and father’s entire life changed, and JT knew exactly what that was like.

Brett had gone directly into surgery, after the incident. His wife was told the next six hours were critical. He was placed in a medically induced coma for roughly twenty days and when he awoke, he had lost his right kidney, a portion of his colon and the lower part of his leg. He was now able to receive visitors.

We arranged to visit Brett at UF Shands Hospital, ironically, the same hospital, the same floor and the same nurses who had brought JT Townsend back from a near fatal spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic eight years before. It was strange JT admitted, he had not been back to this floor since he left after his initial injury. Like Brett, his family was told making it thru the first night was critical. The nurses would later tell us their minds immediately raced back to that October, night 2004 when young JT was brought in. The nurses doubted either man would survive their injuries.

Brett & Susan Parks

But, something miraculous happened. Both men held on surviving death defying trauma with strong faith in God believing He would help them inch back from seemingly impossible physical limitations. And, He did.

JT Townsend went on to start JT Townsend Foundation with a mission to help children and adults with neurological disabilities with adaptive equipment or financial assistance. Brett started A Second Shot Ministries so he could serve up a portion of inspiration. Brett also has written a book Today, Brett travels around the nation, speaking to churches, businesses and schools about that fateful day and how setting goals and never giving up helped him survive. Brett has also written a book titled “Brett Parks: Miracle Man: A Bullet That Ignited a Purpose-Filled Life”. Both of these champions took seemingly impossible situations and turned them into good.

Given these circumstances what would you do if you were given a second shot?

Autumn leaves…

Autumn leaves…

Smoke filled the air on a crisp fall Michigan morning. It was the weekend and neighbors were out in snuggly white cable knit sweaters, jeans and boots raking up mountains of bright red orange and yellow Maple leaves. Kids and dogs jumped happily into the mounds of crunchy dry leaves giggling and happy for the return of fall, a welcome change from the hot and humid summer months left behind. Spring and fall are such awesome seasons in the northern midwest. I loved fall the most.

Fall came early in Michigan. Temperatures began to dive once Labor Day arrived and school began. Mom could be found knitting brightly colored yarn that stretched like a clothes line from her knitting bag on the floor beside the chair as her long metal needles clicked and produced long scarves, warm caps and mittens. And, if Grandma Kathy was visiting, the house smelled of cinnamon and apples as her scrumptious pies with fancy sugared crusts baked in the oven.

Of course the Franklin Cider Mill was a frequent stop to grab a bag of freshly fried donuts and a jug of cider.The mill opened Labor Day weekend and stayed open producing cider and donuts until Thanksgiving Day. While you waited for your order you could observe the process. The huge press can hold up to sixty bushels of apples on each side. They would yield about three gallons of cider per bushel of apples The cider is not filtered, pasteurized or contain any form of preservative, just pure fruit juice that must be refrigerated.

Living in Florida and raising our family at the oceans edge has been wonderful, but I do wish they could experience just one fall day in my home state of Michigan, where the Upper Peninsular is often referred to as God’s country.

When God answered….

When God answered….

There are several nodules in my lungs that my medical team have been keeping an eye on for over a year. They say the sophistication of equipment used in chest CT scans has improved so much that if they were to scan everyone, chances are pretty good they would find nodules in a good percentage. But, they preface this by adding, of course, they are not pancreas cancer patients.

The horrible thing about pancreas cancer is the seamless way it slips into cells in other major organs. There is a river of sorts with tiny tributaries that runs thru the pancreas sending enzymes to your digestive system and ultimately throughout your body. These enzymes are necessary for the body to absorb valuable nutrients our body needs to thrive. The pancreas also produces insulin important to maintaining sugar levels that support many other systems throughout our bodies. While it is a pretty important organ, you actually can live without a pancreas with the help of digestive enzymes and insulin that can be prescribed. (Disclaimer alert….I am not a doctor, and forgive me if I have misspoken, but this is how it was explained to me.)

For over three years there were no significant changes in my three month CT scans that are on the hunt for new masses, lit up lymph nodes and who knows what else. But, suddenly, one of the lung nodules they had watched for over a year seemed to solidify and grow from what is described as “ground glass” with no real form to a one centimeter spot. This was the size docs had told me it would have to reach before we could do a biopsy. After my team of doctors reviewed the suspect nodule, they agreed a needle biopsy should be ordered.

The out-patient procedure was scheduled and we were given instructions and of course the precautionary worse case scenarios that could occur. About 15% of patients undergoing a needle biopsy of the lung will experience deflation of the lung which is painful and you will be required to spend the night in the hospital while the lung is re-inflated. The worst part of the procedure was supposed to be numbing the area. Tommy and I agreed we had already beaten so many odds since our original diagnosis of PC that surely we could beat this too.

Doctors explained that there were three possibilities. 1) Inflammation causing enlargement of the node. 2) Lung cancer or 3) Metastatic pancreas cancer. While it seems odd to pray for lung cancer, we actually did. It would have been early stage lung cancer with a relatively high rate of cure. Option number three was not discussed in detail because we all knew that would change my staging to a four with lung being one of our major organs and a recurrence to battle once again. But of course we hoped it was just inflammation.

The day of the appointment came. We have a ritual prayer Tom prays as we make the left turn into Mayo campus. He grabs my hand and prays aloud to God to give us courage to believe He will bring us through this day and provide us with the strength we all need as a family to face whatever His will is for us. I told Tommy I would be going under Jesus’ wing feathers, Psalm 91 just as I did for every frightening procedure before. Power port access and blood draw began at seven AM. We registered and made our way to the second floor staging area. I was taken back to be prepared and shortly after Tommy joined me in the curtained waiting area bay #16.

There would be no sedation for this procedure explained the doctor. They needed me to be completely awake. I had to help with important breathing techniques that would enable them to penetrate that small nodule that was like a moving target inside my lung. The heart is beating and the diaphragm is working, so no drug that might deplete the lungs air capacity could be administered. The area would be numbed with Lidocaine which would be a sharp prick and then burning as the numbing took over. They said I should feel just a small amount of pressure when the actual biopsy was taken, a punch sound and then a little pressure. I was ready to go.

A young Asian male nurse wheeled me back to the CT room and asked me to transfer to the bed for the scan. Several nurses and technicians were in the room preparing whatever it was they were responsible for. They assured me the nurse would be there just to attend to me. The rest of them would be doing their jobs. They asked me to lay on my stomach and laid my head on a pillow facing the glass window to the adjacent office where more techs seemed to be discussing what they saw on the monitor. I was fairly relaxed and ready to have this part of the ordeal over with. The doctor entered the room and told me my job was a series of breaths that would help them to capture the tissue they needed. But, if I experienced any pain to let them know immediately. I told them I had a pretty high pain tolerance so I would be able to do whatever they needed me to do.

Suddenly they were prepping my back shoulder blade with betadine solution. Next came the Lidocaine shot…”Here you will feel a big pinch and then burning” , said the doctor. He was not kidding. It seemed like he gave me several injections of the numbing medication as I felt the burning subside leaving just some pressure. I would not have moved if I had to. This was serious. It was explained to me that it was just like piercing a balloon with a needle. They didn’t want that balloon to burst.

It seemed like I completed a thousand trips into the CT machine and requests to “take a short breath in, hold it, now breath.” as the doctor guided his scope aiming for that small moving target …the center of the nodule. He stopped for additional Lidocaine and instruction from the attending physician, eyes were glued to the monitor. Finally the other doctor took over and at long last…success. They quickly took two needle biopsy’s and removed the prob from my back. “It’s all over” she said. “We got two good tissue samples. Now lay completely still so we can check to make sure the hole we just put into your lung closes as it should. If you feel any pain, let us know.” She moved quickly to the office and I could see them in the window glued to the monitor.

Alone in the room I laid face down on the bed not moving a muscle. Suddenly I felt a huge cramping in my left lung around what I suspected to be my heart. I cringed and waited to see if it would pass. I seemed to move outward from the core and then engulf my entire lung. I couldn’t take a breath and I feared I might run out of breath.

A nurse entered the room asking if I was doing okay. I told them what was happening and suddenly the room filled. “Your vitals are fine, the scan shows the hole is closing just as it should be. You are going to be fine. Let’s move you.”

I didn’t want to move or to be touched. “Please just give me a minute.” I gasped.

But suddenly they were grabbing the sheet that I laid on and sliding me over to the gurney and moving me on my side. The pain was almost unbearable. The gurney began to move taking me out of the CT room and down the hall to the recovery area I had left just an hour before.

My sweet friend Kelly Winer lights a candle at beautiful Cathedral de San Juan


The doctor explained to Tommy and my son Scott who had just arrived, the procedure had gone really well and they would be giving me pain medication, Dilaudid, into my port and that should stop the cramping once I relaxed. It took two doses to dull the pain. I felt like a feather drifting through the room. The cramping continued but it allowed me to breath. Tommy held my hand telling me to breath through my nose and slowly let it out. I held his hand tightly and followed his prompting. We remained in the room for an another hour under observation and finally given the all clear to go home. We should have the results of the biopsy by Tuesday afternoon.

While the procedure was difficult it could not compare to the anxiety of awaiting a phone call to tell you if you are facing another life threatening cancer diagnosis. And, the anxiety touched not only Tommy and I, but our entire family and close friends too.

Would be have to put our plans on hold for trips during the holidays? Would I have hair for a Christmas card photo? Would I be strong enough to decorate, buy gifts and entertain? These thoughts ran through my mind the entire weekend.

Tommy and I attended evening mass a few days before the biopsy procedure and Msgr. administered the sacrament anointing of the sick. We had asked for prayer from my bible study groups and close friends we knew we could count on. Everyone was eager to get on their knees once again.

Family and friends gathered at our home most of the weekend. When Monday arrived we both jumped each time the phone rang. We didn’t sleep well and I had a throbbing headache most of the time, unusual for me. Finally it was Tuesday. Tommy didn’t know if he should go to work or not. He wanted to be the one to take the phone call. He stayed close to me all day.

The clock struck 6 on Tuesday evening and we were pretty sure we would not get a call so late. We tried to sleep to the gentle ping of our cell phones as text messages came in from family wondering if we had gotten any news. Every text and email told of more who were praying for good results.

When we arose on Wednesday morning Tommy made a pot of coffee and we read the paper together. Finally he asked me if we should call the doctor or just show up at his office? Suddenly the phone rang and it was a Mayo Clinic number. Tommy sprang from his chair grabbing my phone and made his way to our bedroom. I stood looking out of the kitchen window praying to God and thanking Him for our many blessings.

The call didn’t take long but I strained to hear any response Tommy was making. I couldn’t hear anything. He came to the kitchen and asked me to join him in the bedroom. We kneeled down next to the bed and he began to pray.

“God, we don’t understand how you continue to shower us with your blessing and grace. We are so thankful for this report of no cancer this morning……” I barely heard the rest of the prayer. We both sobbed and embraced.

God had heard the prayers. His plan was in place long before we were even born. It is all about Him truthfully. But I still believe He must have heard all of those voices asking for His favor. He must have figured, this lady needs to stay awhile longer. She has more work to be done. This was a time we all prayed and He answered.

Thank you Jesus.

The rest of the day I walked thru the house feeling like a bright yellow sunflower standing tall and swaying in the sunshine of a Tuscan field, thankful for my faith, for my husband and my family and for my prayerful friends.

Life lessons….things I learned the hard way

Life lessons….things I learned the hard way

Sister sunflower

Before you begin reading these lessons…please know that this is how I attempt to live my life. I am not always successful with all of them, but I do try.

1.) Let your “NO” be no and your “YES” be yes.

If you commit to something, follow thru. Never change your plans because something better came along. People are counting on you. Be a person of strong commitment. This is one of the characteristics of being a responsible and dependable person.

2.) Never give a LOAN to anyone.

If someone comes to you with a request for money think long and hard. Pray about it. Is this going to help this person or do you need to consider “tough love”? Don’t be an enabler. However, if you see a true need and you are able to provide the funds requested, do so never expecting to get the money back. That way you will never build up resentment toward this person. Most of the time the money is not repaid, so approach it that way from the start and you will never be disappointed in anyone. Give it and forget it. Never share your generosity with anyone, except if you are married you should make these decisions jointly.

3.) Respect other peoples possessions as well as your own.

If you borrow something, return it in the same condition or better than when you received it. And return it promptly.

4.) Live your life as if each day is your last.

If you begin each day with thanks just for waking up and breathing, you will never be disappointed. Gratitude is a key factor in happiness. Do what you can within your personal limitations to make each day full. If you have a bucket list….get busy. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

5.) Tell the ones you love how much you love them.

If those around you don’t know how you much you care about them, tell them. This encourages love, respect and nothing but positive emotions. Oprah once said, “You want someone’s eyes to light up when you enter a room.” Be sure the ones you love KNOW this love. (With social media, even a text or a tweet can show you are thinking of someone.You don’t even have to speak to them.)

6.) Never forget your priorities.

God first, family second and the rest last. If you live your life with your priorities in proper alignment with your faith, you will have NO regrets. God will smile on you.

7.) Live a life of giving.

When you give, you are showing others God’s love for them. You are His hands. It needn’t be anything more than a smile. Give as much as you can and do service to others and you will reap rewards you never imagined. Remember that giving is not always dollars.

8.) Love on older people.

I am sure you have heard it said, “Older people are just young people in wrinkly skin.” There brains are still back in their youth. Even if they forget things, they still are living and breathing as they did in years past. Show them respect and encourage them to share their life experiences with you. You might just learn something. Plus, it makes them feel they still have value, something to offer to this world.

9.) When you go to church go to honor God.

If you go to church only to have your faith nurtured you are going for the wrong reason. Go to give God one hour of your week in respect and gratitude for the many blessings He has given you. If you learn something from the homily along the way…..wonderful. Go out and practice what you learned.

10.) Only speak positive words.

If you surround yourself with positive people and speak positive words, you will have a happy and stress free life. The old saying.”If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” applies here. Who wants to be around a negative person? NOBODY.

11.) Look for the good in everyone and everything.

If you look for the good in every situation or every person, you will forget about the bad. There is a silver lining in every situation, and sometimes it is more difficult to find it than others. But it is there…as bleak as it may seem. I promise this is true.

12.) Always tell the truth.

I used to tell people things that I felt would make them fell better or what they wanted or expected to hear. Sometimes these things were far from the truth. (Rules 10 and 11 apply here.) It is always difficult to remember untruths. They will often turn into a chain of lies and then you are sunk. You probably can never remember it all. Stick to the truth and unless you have Alzheimer’s disease you will not fail.

13.) Teach your male children to always open the door for the ladies. Tell your female children to always act like a lady. Wear clothes that express your feminism not sexy. And, Father’s, teach your girls how to be treated by a man thru your words and actions from the day they are born.

They may not always be ladies, but he is always a gentleman. Tell your children to always be faithful. If they wish to spend time with someone else, break off the relationship. Be honest and fair and respectful of everyone.

14.) When children are introduced and a hand is offered make sure they look them straight in the eyes when shaking their hand.

15.) You get what you you get and you always say “Thank You”.

Enough said.

16.) Always pay your bets.

If you play games and monetary bets are made ALWAYS pay your bets. This is something you should learn early in life. Nobody wants to play with a person who justifies not paying up. And, even more importantly, don’t sit at the table without money in your pocket. It’s best not to gamble at all. But, these are rules that you should follow and in some crowds, it can be dangerous if you don’t honor the code!

17.) Teach your children about the commitment of marriage.

When they think they have found the person they want to share their life with you need to ask some hard questions. Did you pray about this person and did God give you a clear message they are the one He has chosen for you? Do you believe you can live your entire life with him/her? And, the final thing is, when you are married, you are married for life. But, if you find that you made a mistake in marrying him/her, be honest and fess up. Tell them immediately, seek help, and do not see another person until you are honest with your spouse and the marriage has been terminated. Be respectful of one another above all else. You married this person and believed you would love them forever. Find out why you don’t and fall in love all over again. Don’t wait until it is too late and things have been said that cause hearts to be torn apart.

18.) When you meet someone and you think they might “be the one” wait six months before you do anything drastic. It takes six months before the true self is shown.

19.) Don’t demand respect from your children…..earn it.

Enough said.

20.) Never throw your sibling in front of the bus.

The last two of my children were eleven months apart in age. When they were teens this came up. I wanted them to remain close throughout the teen years and into adulthood. While this is difficult for parents, it is wise. Ratting on your brother or sister causes them to lose trust in you. No trust….no deep relationship. Today, while they have strong opinions and voice them to each other, they remain very close. Nobody understands you like your sibling. The love between sisters and brothers is a deep and unending love. Don’t lose out on this blessing from God.

21.) You are only as good as your five best friends.

Do they make you a better person? Do they lift you up or tear you down? Do you want to be like them or do you sometimes justify why they hurt you or others? Choose wisely and embrace strong and nurturing friendships of those who share like values or those you would aspire to.

22.) Pray for God’s will, whatever it is, not for what you want….He already knows that.

The most important thing I can share with anyone is to pray for God’s will. It is the single most “freeing” rule I can give you. That is why I saved it for last.

If you pray for what YOU want, you will be disappointed. God doesn’t always work on your time schedule and He certainly doesn’t listen to your plan. He already has everything all worked out. He already has a plan for you. He WILL give you your hearts desire. I promise it will be bigger, better, more loving and more dependable than YOUR plan ever could be. I am the living breathing truth of this.

If God had answered some of my prayers, I would not be what I am today, where I am today and probably not half as happy and loved as I am today.

As Garth Brooks puts it. “Thank God….for unanswered prayers…”

Where does a dream come from?

Where does a dream come from?

When a dream becomes a reality it is a humbling experience. Today I feel as if I am floating on a cloud of gratitude. For a year and a half we have built a pyramid stone by stone beginning with a meeting of minds to discuss an idea. We lured them to our home with a promise of pizzas from the wood burning oven, craft beer on draft and plenty of cabernet to get the conversations going. What resulted was far more than we could have ever imagined.

Tommy had always wanted to throw a golf tournament on the golf course that we have viewed every morning for over twenty four years and one of the most famous in professional golf, the TPC Stadium course at Sawgrass. With each think tank meeting a team was forged. Ideas came from everyone, contacts were contacted and the event began to take form. We set up a meeting with the appropriate TPC staff and received their blessing. We asked our long time friend if he would want to join us once again. He gave a positive response with no hesitation. Our legal expert and a JTTF board member set out to form the Funk-Zitiello Foundation a new non profit, our JTTF marketing team began to work on the creative for the event. A web site was developed and social media began to promulgate. A team of over 80 volunteers was assembled. We were on our way to organizing a first class event at a first class venue.

However, before I go any further there is an element of the process that must be revealed.

Where does a dream begin? How is it born and how does it grow like ripples on the water? This dream came from a place deep within Tommy and I. We believe that God tugged gently at our hearts. We know He is the reason for our team, for our creative and crazy plans and for success beyond our wildest imagination. But, then it became not just our dream, it became the quest for others who heard about it. We believe it was all God’s plan.

When we look back over time we can see His work behind the scenes. Not just the past few years, but for our entire lives. Why did we move to this place we call heaven on earth all those many years ago? Why was it the next home being built belonged to a striving pro golfer? Was all of this by chance? How about that hard working golfer pulling off a win at potentially the fifth major golf tournament on the PGA Tour calendar and it happened just months after a young high school senior suffered a near fatal spinal cord injury on the football field. How did he meet JT Townsend? How did Fred and Sharon Funk and his band of golf fans, the Funk’s Punks join together to rally a community to build that young man a home so his family could live under one roof? How did I survive a cancer that is statistically a death sentence within one year? You just can’t make this stuff up. God was and is always in control. And, His plans are perfect.

It was not an easy task putting this event together. It took a team and it took a lot of work and worry and so many conversations I can’t begin to count them. But, in another way it was simple really. All we had to do was tell our story. Those who have been touched by something so raw and devastating were caught hook, line and sinker, many had been touched by pancreas cancer or had seen the work of JT Townsend and his foundation helping others who found themselves in the same position as he was, disabled and with no hope of getting the things they needed.

When we began we had a budget that I felt was aggressive and maybe unattainable. But, I knew we had to make everyone on our team understand what we wanted to achieve. Just a few weeks before the event we were not even close to our number and I heard discouragement in Tommy’s voice. I assured him, this was not OUR event, the perfect people would be there and the perfect number would be achieved. We just needed to have faith and keep putting one foot in front of another. And we did by achieving not only that lofty budget, but going over it by almost twenty percent.

We were also concerned about holding the event during the rainy season in North Florida. The showers had appeared each day for a month, a nice drenching rain to water the flowers and keep the hot days humid and sustain our natural beauty. But, rain could potentially shut down an outdoor event. Again, I turned to my faith and declared the day would be perfect because this is His event not ours. And, it was a perfect morning with not a cloud in the sky as the JT Townsend Gospel Choir sang praises on the hill overlooking the golfers as they warmed up on the driving range.

The JT Townsend Memorial Gospel Choir

But, there was one more God wink that probably came from our beloved JT at near conclusion of the golf tournament. Fred Funk, who had never hit a hole-in-one on TPC Stadium Course’s most photographed and feared hole #17 did just that. Not only did he do it that day, he did it right when Tommy, his son and his father and his best friend were on the tee, a group of diehard golf fans who as Funk’s Punks had followed Fred for twenty five years of his career. Everyone could hear the cheers throughout the course and knew something wonderful had happened. And it did.

What has been confirmed to me is that when God is involved we just need to listen for his next instruction. We need to place our complete faith in Him and allow each piece to fall into place. He will never disappoint.

What is your dream waiting to come true? Do you possess the faith you need to make it a reality?

The crowd erupts as Fred hits a hole in one

“With God all things are possible” Mark 10:27

Judi Zitiello, Sunshine, Carmen Townsend, Tommy Zitiello, Precious Townsend

The sponsors who made this event possible. Thank you all

The olive branch

The olive branch

My sweet Joseph and I feel as if God showers us with His blessings with these amazing little gifts He sends called babies. Two of our boys had blessed us with five special angels. We loved watching them grow and develop into little humans with individual traits that distinguished them from one another. Slowly time slipped past us and they were no longer infants or toddlers. We missed that innocent stage where each new discovery was met with awe and increased curiosity. While we watch with amazement at their accomplishments in sports and academics and social skills and see their faith life growing we are thankful and proud. He continued to gift us as we watched them grow.

Suddenly our younger children began to marry and we knew it wouldn’t be long before they would experience what true love really is all about. Since 2014 God has sent us three love gifts, and our hearts are exploding as we watch with eager anticipation each small development, a grin, a smile, a belly laugh or the moment when their eyes connect with ours. It is all so surreal. We count these days as some of the happiest of our lives. Days that transform our lives. Days that will bring us through the difficult days.

These tiny infants, completely dependent upon their Mother and Father for food, warmth and love have stolen our hearts and teach us once again that life is precious and fleeting and so very special a true gift.

January 1st we were blessed again with Olive Adelle Zitiello, weighing just 6 lbs. 9 oz. and 20 inches long. Finally a pink bundle to dress in soft pink and bows. We are thrilled beyond belief, every one of us.

She came quickly and naturally and perfectly formed..thank you Jesus.

Her name held great significance. Adelle is Tommy’s Mothers legal name and beautiful. She was the greatest Mother, Grandmother. We are so pleased Olive’s parents decided to honor her in this way.

We realized shortly after we heard it, her first name Olive evolved from early planning of Louis and Emily’s wedding. The theme was chosen by Emily – Olive branches, simple and full of meaning. The leaf signifies the truth of faith and it’s fruit, the olive is the good of charity. From Emily’s shower to Louis and Emily’s wedding the olive branch was used to decorate the wedding cake, the tables and even the crown on our brides head. It was a single 5 letter word that held great significance for these two parents. Emily’s push present from her husband, a delicate Tiffany olive branch necklace. But, the true gift was this little pink soft being…Olive Adelle Zitiello.

A Mother’s love

The family began to pour into the maternity ward to meet the newest member. We gathered to share our thanks and wonder at the miracle of birth.

Little Jude was amazed when he saw Olive for the first time.

We had told Jude for many months that baby Olive was in Emily’s belly. Now he could see her.

Joseph and I have realized how fleeting life truly is. This is what age does for us. We know that God sends us these miraculous gifts to perpetuate our existence here on earth. We are blessed beyond our belief and truly thankful.

A peace that surpasses all understanding….Phil 4:7

A peace that surpasses all understanding….Phil 4:7

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I can smell the aroma of fresh brewed coffee as I anticipate the fade of the percolators pumping sound. Pouring the cold, sweet creamer into the cup then lifting the heavy pot, I fill the cup to the brim with dark, rich coffee. I take a taste and return to the kitchen table where my bible lays open, a vanilla scented candle burns next to the workbook. It is my quiet time. The only sounds of the house are the whirl of the refrigerator. It is my special time with my creator.Time when I can focus on His teachings. I am completely rested and at peace and eager to get to today’s lesson.

Since 1996 I have been involved in small group bible studies and prayer coffees. The impact on my life is extremely recognizable to all who knew me BC….yes, before Christ, they might say I am a different person. And, yes, I am a new creation in Christ.

I thought I had Christ in my life from the time I was a small child. And, He did dwell within me, but He was certainly not the one I gave credit, consulted or loved beyond any human love I now describe. It took the prompting of author Wilma Stanchfield, “Struck by Lightening – Then by Love” who came to speak at a Christian Women’s Club luncheon I attended with a neighbor.

At her prompting after hearing her powerful testimony, I bowed my head and tearfully repeated the prayer of salvation. That day, I drew a line in the sand, I promised to put Jesus Christ in control of my life. A strange feeling of peace washed over me that very moment and has remained with me every moment since.

Early on the women’s club invited me to host a prayer coffee. The ladies gathered at my home for a slice of quiche, some sweet rolls and coffee. We sat in a circle in the living room and some of the ladies asked if we would pray for specific things. When we began one of the ladies opened with a prayer, “We know that when two or more are gathered in your name you are with us Lord…” One lady asked for us to pray for a family member who was facing a difficult surgery, or a daughter expecting a baby after a miscarriage, for salvation for a brother who was on drugs. It was all really remarkable. The prayers from these ladies were the most comforting prayers I had ever heard. The words seemed to drift from their lips like feathers. I felt warm inside and could envision a circle of angels surrounding us and I felt I was truly in God’s presence.

As months passed I joined a bible study group. I didn’t know my way around a bible very well. As Catholics, we never really read the Bible. We would hear the gospel each mass and the priest would give a homily he had prepared surrounding the message. But, I was not familiar with the book itself.
I went to the Christian bookstore and searched the shelves for a bible some of the ladies recommended, a Life Application Study Bible. I also purchased tabs for each book of the bible to make it easier to locate each book and scripture during our study. I would highlight the scriptures we discussed and loved that the notes at the bottom of each page explained what the verses meant in lay terms.

There were some rules that were explained at the beginning of a new six week study. We needed to arrive promptly and let the hostess know if we were unable to attend. We were encouraged to invite others to luncheon so they could learn about our group and hopefully receive the blessing of salvation. We were told never to share anything discussed personally outside of the room. A bond of confidence was critical so everyone would be comfortable sharing life experiences.

We learned first hand that not making each other feel guilty when we couldn’t attend was a huge reason the girls continued to participate. And, that a persons individual religious doctrine was not important so long as we stood on the word of the Lord. As we closed in prayer each week we asked God to place a name of a friend or neighbor on our hearts that He would want to join our group.

We found that everyone had a story about how they came to know the Lord. I realized my story was not so bad after all and that forgiveness begins with ourselves. If God forgives us, we surely need to be able to forgive ourselves too.

It wasn’t long before I was hosting bible study at my home. The group would enjoy my passion for cooking as I prepared a morning meal for the ladies and prepared cappuccinos and tea at their request during the half hour of fellowship before we moved to the living room for discussion of last week homework and a video presentation.

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Word spread throughout our neighborhood and our group began to grow. The ladies I least expected to join us were suddenly at our front door. We grew closer and closer to one another as we shared our life trials and blessings. And, we grew closer and closer to Jesus as we began to understand His promises through studying the stories and the amazing men and women of the bible, people just like us, flawed and human.
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It was a wonderful time of sharing, learning and caring. The diversity of age and religion was a blessing too. We were able to draw from Godly women who had been studying the bible most of their lives. They shared solutions to difficult situations in relationships they had experienced. It was very enlightening and felt good to receive sound counsel.

I credit these Godly women with leading me to a personal relationship with Christ, I doubt I would be the person I am today had I not joined that club so many years ago.

Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Matthew 7:7

Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation.The old way of living has disappeared. A new way of living has come into existence. 2 Corinthians 5:17.

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“Trouble, trouble, trouble….Sometimes I swear it feels like this worry is my only friend”

“Trouble, trouble, trouble….Sometimes I swear it feels like this worry is my only friend”
ServPro So Jacksonville and Arlington golf event to benefit Champions for Hope

ServPro So Jacksonville and Arlington golf event to benefit Champions for Hope

Apprehension is building to the date of that dreaded scan.The March and June scans revealed spots on my lungs that my oncologist, Dr. Johnson said the chance of a reoccurrence of my pancreatic cancer could be 3 or 4 on a scale of 1-10.

With my husband out of town our daughter Lindsay and her baby boys joined me the entire day at Mayo in June as I checked off my schedule of appointments. 8AM blood work on the chemotherapy floor, because they know how to access my port without pain. 12:30 drink the contrast liquid down about 1/2 an hour before the 5 minute CT scan. Then afternoon appointments, allowing for the radiology department to read the scans and write their findings then meeting with my oncologist who will review the labs and CT scan report and give us the results. Then another appointment with my Radiology-oncologist for his take on the reports. They attempt to schedule both docs appointments back to back so there is no waiting for that thumbs up from everyone and we can get on with our lives, at least for three more months anyway.

That is how we live our lives in this family, at three month intervals.

According to the doctor those 3 or 4 or more “lit up” nodules grew in size from March to June, but remained under 1cm and too small to go thru the pain of collapsing my lung to biopsy them. I had a case of pneumonia early in spring. Could that have had anything to do with this I asked? My radiology oncologist was more positive than the oncologist. He said it could be lung cancer, which would be better for me than a metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Lindsay quipped on the way home in the car, “Here we are praying it is lung cancer. Something just seems wrong about that.”

Jaguars "Meet me on the 50"  night.

Jaguars “Meet me on the 50” night.

My amazing husband planned fun trips for us during the three months. One week in Cleveland to visit family and catch the Cavs’ Championship ring ceremony. That turned in to game two of the World Series with the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs. What at week. Then we had baby showers and Jacksonville Jags games and of course my work with both foundations. They would keep me as busy as possible so I could not have time to think about the grey cloud that was hovering just above me.

The LAND.....Cleveland ROCKS

The LAND…..Cleveland ROCKS

Purple Stride – Jacksonville Beach….

The D'Errico's turn out in full support of Jude's Dude's Purple Stride 2016

The D’Errico’s turn out in full support of Jude’s Dude’s Purple Stride 2016

Oh, and then hurricane Matthew and an evacuation!

Hurricane Matthew - evacuation to Poppas warehouse. 12 adults and 9 dogs....fun fun fun

Hurricane Matthew – evacuation to Poppas warehouse. 12 adults and 9 dogs….fun fun fun

Not much time to think about possibilities. There is no reason to worry, God is in control. I know that He has much work for me to do. I believe He has given me this time to help others with raising awareness of this lethal cancer that tries to steal life, laughter and love from it’s next target. But, not today PC. Today I am thankful for my cancer. We have a new outlook on everything thanks to this diagnosis, surgery and treatment. Our family has grown closer, we hug friends a little tighter, we look at the world thru our God eyes recognizing His “winks” along the way. And, we see His hand in preparing us for this time going back years to careers, friendships and moves. He had a plan all along. And, we have no idea when that plan will end, not one of us. So, I am grateful for each day, each person in my life and each breath. I hope when I am face to face with Him, I can look directly into those gentle eyes and say, “I did my best.”

Baby Mick

Baby Mick

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May 25th, 2016 God blessed us once more. Mick Francis Garrity came into the world at just 7lbs. 11oz. and 21 inches long. Another miracle and perfect in every way.

It is almost overwhelming when I consider how blessed we are. God just continues to shower us with His love. These little angels give us all purpose and hope for a better tomorrow. Babies bring out the best in everyone.

Mick is smaller than Jude was at birth, but he is doing great. He is filling out now at 2 months old and starting to focus in on us and smile that little grin that melts my heart.

How can I find more room in my heart for another angel to love? Not a problem. I watch him with anticipation marking each day with a new milestone.

Mia is happy, Mia is blessed. Poppa and Mia love you baby Mick, beyond your imagination.

Sarah's shower holding Mick

Champions for Hope

Champions for Hope

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On a warm June day as I stood at the UNF Arena podium before approximately twelve hundred mourners, I felt a strange peace come over me. I had prayed I could get through the eulogy of a man who changed my life and the lives of my family. A man I love dearly. A man who had shown me my purpose.

At that time I felt my purpose was to carry on his legacy of fulfilling the mission of a foundation we built together by helping people who had been in his very situation, broken and afraid. On that day I could never imagine how that defining moment would explode into yet another purpose even more personal than this.

Just ten months later my husband and I sat on the sofa of my new doctors office. I had always been very healthy. Recently what I wrote off as advancing age; knees clicking, meniscus tears, indigestion all started creeping up on me. Years of walking, body sculpting classes, treadmills and ellipticals pounding my medium sized frame were starting to reveal a truth…I was aging. Confident the doctor would concur with our diagnosis, we smiled when she entered the room and asked me to take a seat on the examining table. She was pretty, about thirty something, so accomplished for her age. But her demeanor was serious. She began to explain the results of the sonogram she had ordered the day before as she turned to her computer screen she pointed to something in the middle of my torso. “You have a mass in the head of your pancreas.” she said. Tom jumped from the sofa to sit on the table beside me. “Your blood work and symptoms reveal it could be pancreatic cancer.” A tear trickled down her cheek as she stoically shared her findings leading to this conclusion. My immediate response, “Can you live without your pancreas?” I was unaware of what the pancreas did. Tom held me tightly as she explained, “Yes,you can, but you would live on insulin for the rest of your life.” She had made an appointment with a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic for the next day. We left her office in utter shock.

The rest of the week was filled with MRI’s, more blood work, conversations with our surgical team, visits to church and meetings with immediate family. I was on a fast decline. Just 11 days after my initial appointment I was on the operating table for a 9 and 1/2 hour Whipple surgery by one of the best pancreatic cancer surgeons in the world.

My treatment and recovery took more than one year. To this day I am affected by the resection of my entire digestive system. Chemo and radiation have turned my stomach muscles to mush as well as deterioration of my bones. I recently underwent 2 and 1/2 hour surgery to repair hernias that developed where drains and other incisions had been required.

But, I am here 26 months at this writing cancer free from a lethal cancer that has a less than 8% survival rate of five years. I am a miracle.

To endure a day like October 8th, 2004 for JT, the date of his near fatal spinal cord injury and April 29th, 2014, the date of my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, is something I would not wish upon anyone.
But, a friend told me one day I would look back on this trial as a blessing. And, that has proven to be true.

That blessing is the revelation of purpose. To move forward with each day that God blesses us with. To take that most difficult situation and turn it into good. To show others that through faith you can conquer anything. Be the example, make others see the hope you glean from a relationship with the only one who truly matters, our savior Jesus Christ.

What was hope for JT? That he would walk again? That he would be able to play football again? That he would hold his wife and baby one day. Only JT knows the true answer to that question. But, he never questioned “why me”. He moved forward each day with a smile and purpose to use his life experience to help others.

What is hope for me? That I will survive this death sentence? That cancer will not steal me from the ones I love too soon? Deep in my soul I promise you I am fine with death. But, I am hopeful that others will see my peace and they will reach deep down too and use each and every day to fight to give others hope.

JT and I have a mutual friend, a friend who we love and loves us both right back. The 2005 Players Champion – pro golfer Fred Funk and his wife and children joined forces with my husband, rock and best friend Tommy Zitiello, to create an event that will be like none other. An event to be held on one of the most prestigious golf courses in the country, The Champions for Hope Golf Classic.

The inaugural Champions for Hope golf classic presented by the Funk-Zitiello Foundation, Inc. (501C3 IRS designation applied for) will be held Friday, June 16th,2017, Father’s Day weekend, a gala, concert and auction at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. Golf will commence on Saturday, June 17th on the famed Stadium course. There will be 25 foursomes and a fifth celebrity. The proceeds from this event will be paid to two First Coast causes, The JT Townsend Foundation, Inc. and to fund a grant to research pancreatic cancer.

We intend for this event to grow annually, to give hope to the families of those affected by both of these causes and in years to come other worthy causes.

To find out how you can become a champion for hope send your inquiry to info@championsforhopegolf.com.

God bless everyone, individuals and sponsors who have stepped up to join our team of champions for hope to help benefit these two deserving causes.

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