Dying to Live. Family Copes With Homelessness and Two Sick Parents  

By Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D.

Founder and CEO

Joy Junction Inc.

 The Gantz Family

The Gantz Family

How would you feel if your ordinary day turned into one not so ordinary with the imposition of a death sentence?

That was what happened to Joy Junction resident James Gantz, 57, in Oct. 2013.

He’d been having a lot of pain and along with his wife Rachel Campbell, 33, decided another  trip to the doctor was necessary.

James said he had been going to the doctors for a while, but without a lot of success.  “They seemed to give me the run around,” he told me in a recent interview.

When the ultimate diagnosis was handed down, it was determined that James had been suffering with cancer for about five years.

James said he was angry when he heard the doctor’s words.  After all, said, he’d been complaining for years.

“The doctor was very rude and cold in the way he told me. He said, ‘Looks to me you have stage four cancer and you’ll be dead by Christmas.’”

James said he believes the “callousness” of the approach was because the family was on Medicaid. He said, “I was stereotyped as a drug person because I had long hair and a beard. I did all the stuff you were supposed to and they missed it.

Rachel said she went out into the hallway and broke down. She said, “The inevitability that he was going to die before me sunk in. I had always thought I would die before he did because I had MS.”

Rachel said she was diagnosed with MS-multiple sclerosis-eight years ago, and two after they were married.

Rachel said her MS means she often can’t do the things she really wants to. “I am in constant pain and the seizures have made me bed ridden for months at a time.”

Rachel said she realized that if the doctors were correct in their diagnosis the two of them were going to be dead before their kids graduated from high school.

Going outside, she said, “We just sat in our car in the parking lot for 20 minutes in total shock and disbelief.”

James said, “One day you’re worried about changing the oil so you can go on a trip, and then you get that diagnosis and all your priorities change.”

I wondered how the kids reacted. Death is never the easiest subject to discuss.  Rachel said she told them right there, asking if they understood what the doctor has said.

“They said they didn’t, so Rachel told them, ‘Daddy has something in his body that’s growing, and eventually he is going to die from it. They understood death because of talking about me.”

I wondered what the children felt about having two terminally ill parents. Rachel said, “They have known nothing else. I have been ill all their lives. They know that Jim has cancer and is dying, however, I don’t think they fully understand what it all means.”

Rachel told the children, “We’re going to have a lot of fun with Dad from now until Christmas.”

However, James said, “My children are angry because I’m going to leave them.”

And James? “I  have only one question about death, and that is, ‘Will I get to see my family right away?’”

The devastating diagnosis came two days before the family’s trip to New Mexico. They’d been advised to try a warmer climate than Michigan because of the pain James was having different in his bones and joints.

The pain was worse than bad. James called it, “agonizing. It was in my bones. Teeth gritting, eye watering and crying out pain.”

So the family came to New Mexico and lived in the East Mountains for a while.  Casa Esperanza also helped them out while James was getting specific treatments at the University of New Mexico Hospital, but when that time came to an end the family ended up homeless.

It was now Jan. 2014 and they were homeless.  James said that he and Rachel (with their three children, ages 8, 6 and 3) were scared of the unknown.

After spending the night in a Walmart parking lot, they came to Joy Junction. I asked them how the kids reacted to staying in our big multi purpose area, with scores of people.

Rachel said, “They were happy because they wanted a bed and wanted to lay down flat.  The kids were happy and they were bouncing with joy. Their eyes were bigger than saucers. A staff person calmed us down. She bought the kids crayons and books.”

She added, “I cried just because there was a place to go.”

Jim is now doing better, saying he has undergone radiation “and a lot of experimental treatment” at UNM. He is on hormone therapy, which he said as long as it continues to work will keep him alive. He said his cancer is “responding to ongoing treatment” but not in remission.

He even sees a future now. Both Jim and his wife are in our Christ in Power life recovery program, which James praised.

He said that it allows the family to save money, because Joy Junction provides all necessities. “

“If God’s plan is for us to go, we will be able to after graduation. Whatever God holds for me, I know my future is bright and full of love.”

James said as unpleasant as the diagnosis has been, he appreciates life more now.

He said, “I value every second because I now know it so easy to waste time. My advice is to use every second the Lord gives you and don’t be afraid to live. Last week I rode the log ride with my son at Cliff’ amusement Park.”

James said he appreciates everything Joy Junction has done for his family. “We tell people that God put you here for a reason. You (Joy Junction) clothed our kids and put shoes on their feet, and gave them games to play to keep them occupied and the very next day they were in school.”

Rachel was just as grateful as Jim for the way Joy Junction has helped her family.  She said the shelter has done more for her family than anyone else in her entire life.

“It renewed our family and our faith in God. Joy Junction has done everything for us and they have done it all with love.”

Without Joy Junction, Rachel said, they would probably have lost the kids. With their health issues, living on the streets would have taken the last of the rapidly waning strength they had.

Jim went even further, saying that without Joy Junction he would probably be dead and the kids in foster care.

He continued, “It’s not just a bunch of bums here who don’t want to work. People get here for reasons beyond their control. It’s like the people here were waiting on us hand and foot. Anything we need it’s right here.”

James said that Joy Junction is full of love and goes beyond just helping people. “You’re caring about them. You help fix broken people. To help people go out into the world and start from scratch again.”

Rachel added, “You are like the family I never had and always wanted. It’s like the family that takes care of you. Joy Junction has renewed my faith in people.”

Ultimately, Joy Junction is about God and letting His love flow through us as staff and helping strengthen that relationship our guests have with their Heavenly Father.

Rachel said her relationship with God as helped her and their entire family. “It gives me the strength to take care of all the things I need to. When I do run out of strength, I know now that God will take the weight.”

She reflected, “It has also given me peace. I know that Jim will leave this earth, but now I know he will be with the Lord and I will not be alone, and our family will be together again in the arms of the Lord.”

Joy Junction Assistant Resident Services Manager Lisa Woodward said she first met Jim and Rachel in Jan. 2014.

At that time, Lisa said, James could barely walk and had to spend most of his time sitting in a chair. This troubled him, because even though he was in a lot of pain he wanted to be outdoors with his three young children. Over time he slowly began to regain his strength, and would walk his daughter to playground every morning for a few minutes of fun time with dad.

Rachel was understandably overwhelmed. James couldn’t help her with even the simplest of tasks for the children, and so when she finished getting them ready she would then have to assist James with most of his needs. Some days, Lisa said, tears would stream from her eyes.

After a few weeks they inquired about Joy Junction’s Christ in Power life recovery program (CIPP).

Lisa said, “They were both very honest about their health issues, but insisted that they needed the support system in Joy Junction and they needed to find a relationship with God, especially now.”

After being accepted, Lisa said the couple began to be very involved with class discussions. She added, “They began going to class, and from day one they were very involved in the conversations in class and teachings.”

Lisa added, “Rachel or James ever asked or expected any special treatment or favors. They go to the classes with enthusiasm and high spirits. They treat their volunteer duties with the same spirit, both of them bending over backwards to help the other guests on property. I feel the whole family is a tribute to what God’s love can do.”

To That I echo a hearty amen! Please say a prayer for this family and all the other participants in our life recovery program.