While Rhonda Van Sickle and her three boys were in Florida last week, courtesy of a late-stage cancer charity, members of her church set in motion a secret plan to show them how much they are loved.
All week, work crews swarmed their two-story contemporary house on Southwest Leeward Street in Lee’s Summit.
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The crews didn’t just tackle a few tasks on her to-do list. They drove in with several trailers of new things and hauled off the old.
Van Sickle, 51, has stage four bone cancer. As a physical education teacher at Summit Pointe Elementary and a single mom of Alex, 20, Austin, 17, and Blake, 15, she has let slide a lot of daily chores and larger home projects.
The gym teacher who was always instructing children to exercise more was just too tired to do much for herself.
When members of her church, Lee’s Summit United Methodist Church, asked what chores they could do for her, she shrugged and asked if they could paint some walls to freshen up the place.
Unknown to her, Van Sickle, a member of the church for 27 years, moved to the top of her church’s Impact Project, a mission-based ministry making a difference beyond the church’s walls.
But the more the volunteers looked at her home, the more they saw things that needed fixing. Calls went out and people signed on to do whatever they could. The little project of love grew into a major gift.
But her friends say they were just giving her some love and freshening up the place, as she had asked.
Teresa Graves and Erin Dorriam organized Van Sickle’s closet. Wiping down windows was Brenda Hill, a breast cancer survivor of 22 years. Pam Elkins was the decorator. Ed Lipowicz, a church member who owns Floors and More, parked his trailer at the home and brought in crews to take care of plumbing, flooring and carpeting.
“When you get older,” he said, “you really start thinking hard about the importance of giving back. It’s very important.”
Associate pastor David Hutchison, who has been preaching on the topic of service for a few weeks, knows that his flock heard the message. He has a name for all of this: extravagant generosity.
“We’ve touched every inch of this home It’s not about being a light in the community. It’s about giving of yourself,” he said. “People’s hearts are huge.”
Weeds are gone now. A once-stagnant fish pond is the clean home of six shimmering goldfish. Thirty-year-old mattresses were thrown out, along with a broken stove, tired refrigerator, rotten floorboards and leaky faucets. Dozens of 1970s fixtures were replaced and the air conditioner was overhauled.
“We’ve been blessed that many of our members either do this for a living or know who to call to help. We gutted this house, basically. Our church, with about 3,000 members,” Hutchison said with a grin, “is very alive.”
And it all happened because one volunteer was delivering a simple meal for a sick friend and asked a question.
“I asked her how many more chemotherapy treatments she had left,” remembered Lois Merle, who teaches with Van Sickle. “She told me her treatments would never stop.”
That stopped Merle’s banter cold.
She looked at her friend with new eyes, noticing now that a kitchen drawer was askew. Van Sickle couldn’t cook on the stove or cool the house, Merle saw.
A member of the church interviewed Van Sickle’s family before they left for the vacation from the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, a trip that included visits to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ training camp and a water park. The church videotaped the family’s story and posted it on its blog. The project to change her world began one hour after church service ended last week.
For 14 hours every day before Sunday’s unveiling, volunteers grinned as they worked for a family most of them had never met in person.
One friend suggested that each volunteer sign a river rock. The stones now lie stacked along the edge of a gurgling fountain.
It’s a peaceful place where Van Sickle can reflect, pray and know that she is much loved.