On June 5, Faith Lacek would have turned 7. Her parents, Susan and Mark Lacek, marked the occasion by opening the doors to a brand-new lodge on 80 pristine acres of northern Wisconsin woods complete with a private lake, a large deck, and a giant playroom.
This was not the way the Minneapolis couple had pictured themselves celebrating Faith’s birthday. Seven years earlier, as Susan was in the final weeks of an uneventful pregnancy, she noticed the baby had stopped moving. Detouring a trip to a couple’s shower in order to stop at the hospital, the Laceks soon discovered that their worst nightmare had come true: their baby had died, the victim of an unexplained umbilical cord accident.
The loss of their first child had a profound effect on the couple. "It was really hard on us, especially when it was so unexpected like that," says Susan Lacek. "It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around, and you feel very much alone, like the rug has been pulled out from underneath you."
The Laceks escaped to northern Wisconsin to deal with their grief peacefully and privately. The world as the Laceks knew it had stopped, and the time out was valuable. "It was extremely helpful for us to get away because we could walk through the woods and sit on the dock and just try to process all of this and reconnect with each other, which is extremely important as a couple," Susan says. "That was the impetus for Faith’s Lodge."
A place to heal
After the loss, friends and family were quick to ask Mark and Susan what they could do to help them heal. Having found peace in northern Wisconsin, they had an answer: help us create a retreat for grieving parents and families with critically ill children. "The chance to get away was so important to us that we knew we wanted to do this for couples and families who need to reconnect, whether they’ve lost a child or have a sick child," says Susan. Along with their supporters, the Laceks created a nonprofit organization and moved into headquarters on West 46th Street in South Minneapolis.
Shortly after the group began raising money, Susan bumped into Meg Katzman, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Upper Midwest.
"When Susan described what she was doing, we knew immediately what a perfect fit it was with what we want to do for families," says Katzman. In addition to running the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis, Katzman’s group also makes grants to other groups with similar missions.
"Our outreach program serves families beyond our doors and addresses needs that are not adequately being met," explains Katzman. "Faith’s Lodge is like a Ronald McDonald House in the woods." The Ronald McDonald charity’s enthusiasm translated into a three-year, $433,000 grant to support family programming and services at the lodge. The Laceks built on that donation by hosting a gala fundraiser last summer that raised an additional $250,000 towards the $1.8 million facility.
Support for Faith’s Lodge, which broke ground last July near Webster, Wis., has been overwhelming according to Lacek. "Mark and I felt so strongly that there was a need for a place like this, and all the support has validated our feelings," Lacek says. "Many of our donations are in memory or honor of someone, so we know there are people who identify with this cause. And any parent who has a healthy child feels so grateful for that, so the impact is felt by everyone."
Dealing differently with grief
The lodge was completed on Faith’s birthday and officially opens July 21. Its eight large family suites, with fireplaces, balconies, and plenty of room to rest, can accommodate up to 48 people. The lodge also has a library, arts and crafts area, and a large kitchen for gatherings; and the grounds include nature trails, a memory garden, and a serene lake.
Program Director Kristi Luenzmann says the complex is designed to allow couples and families to participate as much or as little as they want to in the planned programming. "Everyone needs something different," she says. "Some people might want to join in every program or activity we offer, and others just want a place to escape and walk through the woods, and that’s fine."
Guests – who are referred by clergy, health care professionals, or approved support organizations – typically come at the same time as others facing similar circumstances. Grieving families, families with seriously ill children, and grieving couples each have their own separate experiences made up of leisure and therapeutic activities. The programming also takes into account the different ways family members may deal with their emotions.
"Because dads process grief differently than moms, they don’t necessarily want to sit in circle and hold hands, but maybe they would go fishing and, while fishing, they will talk about their experience," says Lacek. The goal is for couples and families to get as much or as little interaction as they feel comfortable with.
After seven years of fundraising, running a board, and creating programming, Lacek is excited for the first couples to finally cross the doorstep of Faith’s Lodge. The recent miscarriage of a close associate has made her more sure of the need for a place like Faith’s Lodge.
"After losing Faith, we realized [grieving is] a journey, a long and difficult journey," explains Lacek. "If we can make it a little bit easier for those that come after us in memory of our daughter, then we’ll feel extremely pleased that we’ve made something positive come out of the worst thing that’s ever happened to us."
Monica Wright is Minnesota Parent’s assistant editor.