Baby Jesus so sweet
Bless Baby Drake as he begins to eat
Keep him tender in your care
as he grows and gets more hair.
– Poem to baby Drake from Ryan P.
Bits of colorful wrapping paper flecked the floor of Tina Parr’s third and fourth grade classrooms before the Christmas break last year. Dozens of children giggled, wrapped gifts and created handmade cards and letters.
The mood of the gathering was happy, but deep down, St. Leonard School students empathized with and prayed for the recipients of the gifts, and hoped that somehow their efforts would alleviate a bit of Brian and Kristen Gettelman’s stress since their son Drake’s birth nearly three years ago. The Muskego students and their families worked to make a memorable Christmas for Drake and 6-year-old Alexis.
Born three weeks early with chronic lung disease, Drake was transferred from West Allis Memorial Hospital to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin shortly after his birth. Two days later, he was in surgery and connected to a heart and lung bypass machine.
During the first of several surgeries, a nerve was severed and vocal chord paralyzed, leaving him to cry silent tears.
In the beginning, he required a feeding tube to protect his airway from obstruction.
According to Kristen, his health issues are the result of two rare gene mutations that his doctors have not seen. While he has improved, Drake has chronic asthma and requires an inhaler and daily breathing treatments.
“He is doing well, but will always have an inhaler and suffer with acid reflux from the disease,” said Kristen. “The doctors expect that he will be caught up (physically and cognitively) to most of the kids by the time he gets to kindergarten.”
While the family is optimistic about Drake’s long-term prognosis, the medical bills from Drake’s six-week hospital stay have strapped the family, exceeding their insurance company’s $2 million cap. Daily hospital charges exceeded $100,000, and he will require lifelong medical intervention. Fundraisers helped Brian and Kristen with a portion of their expenses, but they expect to be paying Drake’s medical bills for the rest of their lives.
When Parr learned of Drake’s illness, she wanted to find a way to help the young mother who stepped up to care for her family when her own parents were ill, and incorporate a lesson on the Corporal Works of Mercy with her students. With so much of the family’s income going toward medical expenses, Parr realized that a little help from a classroom of tiny Christmas elves might make a big difference.
“I have known Kristen for almost 20 years; she was my former neighbor when I was growing up in West Allis. She and her family were there for us when we needed help,” said Parr. “For the past three years, my third grade students donated their own money so that Drake and Alexis were able to have Christmas presents each year. Each year, I ask that a family in my classroom collect money for the kids, another parent purchases the gifts, and we drop them off for the family before Christmas time. This was the third year we were able to help this family.”
Students purchased and wrapped craft kits, art sets, puzzles, stickers, lip balm and hair accessories for Alexis, and crayon sets, movies, puzzles and games for Drake. Some children included jokes in their cards and letters to Drake and Alexis, and others brought in their piggy banks to send money to purchase presents for the children.
“I was taken aback by their generosity to help others,” Parr said. “The most important lesson is that the season was about giving, not receiving and that Jesus is our greatest gift.”
While the majority of students’ efforts center around Christmas, Kristen acknowledged that the ongoing letters and cards throughout the year are reminders of the love and prayers, and are the most meaningful to Alexis and Drake.
“Especially for Alexis, the handmade cards are her favorite,” she said. “She loves sitting down and reading and re-reading them. Tina’s class sends cards and letters for all the major holidays and it just brightens up my kids’ lives so much.”
After Drake’s birth, Kristen quit her job at ACL Labs to care for him. The loss of income and their financial difficulties would have caused a great depression in most families’ lives, but a strong faith and the support of Parr, her students, friends and family have carried them.
“This has been so positive for us to know that people do care,” said Kristen, a member of Hales Corners Lutheran Church. “During Christmas, our kids are like all other kids and they want everything. It’s hard to tell them that we can’t give them what they want, so what Tina and her class did really was wonderful. We just continue to pray, keep a positive attitude and realize that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
While Parr would like to be able to do more to help the Gettelman family, she knows her efforts are planting a seed among her students about what it means to be a Catholic.
“Being Catholic means being open to all,” she said. “This means that our class supports a Lutheran family with a sick child that attends a public school. The best thing would be to have them live in a house with an air filtration system, but that is asking too much and an unreasonable goal, so for now, I call Kristen to support her and we try to help make their family’s Christmas each year a little more merry.”