Giving thanks

Peninsula families celebrate true meaning of the holiday

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2000

Family appreciates home for the holidays

Two years ago, the Cobb family of Kenai celebrated Thanksgiving in a brand new home. What made the situation unusual was that they got the home through Habitat for Humanity.

"It was so cool," said Cindi Cobb.

"I got to cook Thanksgiving dinner in my new kitchen. I loved it."

Looking back over the past two years this holiday season, the family is grateful for the roof over their heads and the turn their lives have taken over the past several years. Cindi and her husband, Tony, say they now have their family, their house and their business just the way they want them.

The couple and their six children moved to Alaska five years ago. Originally from Oregon, they were in the pizza business, and the Godfather's Pizza chain asked Tony to manage its restaurant in Soldotna.

The family ended up living in an 850-square-foot, two bedroom, one bath trailer home in Kenai.

"It was something we could afford," Cindi said.


Charlie and Sandee Simons of Soldtona nearly lost their son Jeffrey to illness recently. Now the 3-yearold would rather talk about his toys than doctors.

"The boys slept in the laundry room."

When the couple approached a bank about the possibility of buying a home, the banker referred them to Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families purchase homes through sweat equity and donations. The Cobbs said they were surprised.

"I thought it was for people who didn't have a place to live or lived in atrocious situations," Cindi said.

While they were making arrangements with Habitat for Humanity, they took the plunge of going into business for themselves.

The Cobbs had heard that Primo Pizza in North Kenai gave out free pizzas for children on their birthdays, so they drove up one evening to check out the competition. They liked the pizza and got friendly with the owner. They learned the business was for sale and decided to buy it.

"We didn't have to put down a whole lot out of our pockets," Tony said. "There is no way we could have done that."

Meanwhile, the process of applying, qualifying and constructing the house took nearly two years.

The family, their friends and volunteers worked on putting the house up. Sponsors from generous area businesses donated materials and expertise. At least one man just showed up for work, explaining that although he did not know the Cobbs, he admired Habitat for Humanity. As the work wound up, friends wrote Bible verses and personal messages on the framing and walls before they were covered.


The Espy family of Kenai, from left, Stacy, Rory, mother Janine, father Roy, and Belinda, holding Kit-Kat.

The family moved in just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving in 1998.

The combination of their own business and the new house has given the family a real boost.

"Financially, we are way better off than when I was managing," Tony said.

Business has been growing to the point that Primo Pizza is interested in hiring another driver. The little carry-out place has a steady clientele from homes in the area, the North Road schools and the Agrium plant across the road.

The house also has been a huge plus.

"Having more space for everybody makes everyone a little less irritable," Tony said.

With five bedrooms, the eldest children get rooms of their own. Having a second bathroom for the family of eight has been helpful. The new house is quieter, feels safer and, although more spacious, costs considerably less to heat than the trailer because of superior insulation, the couple said.

Their eldest son, 14-year-old Josh, said the last point is an important one.

"It is warm in the morning. That's the biggest difference," he said.

His mother added that even his asthma got better after the move.

The family said the house feels like a real family home because of the work they put into it and the fond memories of how it came to be.

"Self-esteem wise, at least for me, it has helped," Cindi said.

"I take a lot more pride in the house than in the trailer. You could clean up that trailer and it still looked terrible."

The Cobbs said they have a lot to be thankful for this time of year.

"God!" 9-year-old Charla put at the top of the list.

Her mother added, "And we are thankful for our house, definitely, and for the organization."

Brush with death makes life precious

Three months ago, Charlie and Sandee Simons found themselves in the pediatric intensive care unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage while a doctor worked frantically on their toddler.

"We were asking him what was going on, and he said, 'We'll see if we make it through the night.' Those are not the words a parent wants to hear," Charlie said.

Just a few hours earlier, life for the young family suddenly turned into a nightmare.

Little Jeffrey, then 2, had declined to eat his breakfast and looked under the weather.

"An hour later, his fever was 104 and he was shaking," his father said.

Charlie gave the child some Tylenol and phoned Sandee, who was working as a seasonal fisheries technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Something about the child's manner alarmed them. Their family doctor was out of town, and they could not get an appointment with another physician until late afternoon. Sandee came home, and the two of them decided to take Jeffrey to the emergency room at Central Peninsula General Hospital.

The doctor on duty told them to take the child home and watch him for 24 hours.

"We knew something was different. He was acting different," Sandee said. "I didn't like that answer."

Reluctantly, the couple drove home. But 10 minutes later, they got back in the car.

Jeffrey's hands were turning blue. By the time they reached the hospital again, the child was breaking out in a red rash and was so lethargic his eyes were rolling back in his head.

This time, the same doctor told them he wanted to do an emergency spinal tap.

Sandee asked for a different doctor. The staff called in Dr. Carole Buchholz, a pediatrician.

Buchholz ordered a spinal tap and a helicopter to Anchorage.

It took the doctors and nurses six or seven times to get the spinal tap on the screaming child. They also had trouble starting an intravenous feed into his tiny veins, as his horrified parents looked on.

The medical evacuation team impressed the Simons.

"Those guys in the helicopter, they are really good," Charlie said.

At Providence, Jeffrey spent three days hovering between life and death. As many as nine medications at a time were pumped into his veins to battle a massive bacterial blood infection.

Charlie and Sandee, assisted by Sandee's parents who drove up from the peninsula, stayed with Jeffrey round the clock.

"I couldn't eat," Sandee said. "I hardly ate in three days."

After the fourth day, Jeffrey was safe and transferred to the regular children's ward. As his strength returned, so did his awareness of his surroundings.

"Please go away," he told a nurse, his parents recall.

After a week in the hospital, Jeffrey was discharged.

His regular physician, Dr. Katy Sheridan, said the family was extremely lucky.

Jeffrey had Neisseria meningococcemia, a variety of bacterial meningitis. The germs are common and naturally occur in about one in four people. However, in rare cases, for reasons not yet understood, they turn deadly, especially in small children. Two years ago, a central peninsula girl died from the same infection, Sheridan said.

"It's a nasty little bacterium," she said.

Now, Jeffrey has turned 3. He is a bright and bouncy boy, eager to chat about his toys. He remembers his ordeal and having to take lots of medicines.

His parents said he has had a series of head colds, probably due to a weakened immune system, and he's developed an aversion to doctors. They described themselves as a bit paranoid about his health these days.

This Thanksgiving, the Simons will gather about 20 family members at their home near Mackey Lake.

They speak in glowing terms of the medical team that cured their son, the help of their family and the friends that showered them with support and filled Jeffrey's hospital room with balloons and cheer.

"Everybody was wonderful," Sandee said.

They are thankful for modern medicine, thankful for Sandee's insurance coverage and especially thankful for the presence of their son.

"Every day is special," she said. "It was before, but now it really is.

"I thank God every day he is still with us. I think my faith is a little stronger."

Couple found inspiration in calamity

Few people are thankful for misfortune. But for Janine and Roy Espy, what seemed at first to be bad luck opened the door for an outpouring of Christian love.

Now the grateful Kenai couple are devoted to passing on that type of help.

"We are so thankful to our Lord for always providing for us and that we can show his providing to others," Janine said.

She works as the director of the central peninsula office of the Christian charity Love In the Name of Christ (Love INC). But years ago the Espys found themselves on the receiving end of charitable giving.

Young sweethearts, the two graduated from Kenai Central High School in 1980 and married that June. That fall, they set off to Oklahoma for college -- and learned that they were going to become parents.

The young couple began attending a church near campus and found themselves adopted by the kindly congregation.

What had been a pleasant relationship soon took a turn toward the providential. When Janine ended up in the hospital with complications and had an emergency Caesarean section, the pastor and congregation rallied to help the young couple.

Later someone stole the Espys meager grocery money from Janine's purse on the church coat rack. They called the pastor to warn him about the thief, little suspecting that he would spread the word that they were in need. In the days following, their church friends gave them far more food than they ever could have purchased, they recalled.

"During those times when we only had $15, $16 for groceries, we never went hungry. Then when we lost it, (God) supplied three times as much," Janine said.

Roy said they were amazed.

"We didn't even contemplate we'd have this reaction. We were concerned someone else would have valuables taken," he said.

Roy looks back on those hard times as a valuable learning experience.

The people in the congregation were older and from different backgrounds than the Espys, but they served the young Alaskans as role models for maturity, healthy marriages and devoted parenting. Their unconditional acceptance and generosity made an indelible impression, he said.

The two of them prayed that someday they would have an opportunity to help others as they had been helped.

In 1985, after Roy completed college, they returned to Alaska with two small sons. They later adopted two daughters. In 1987 they returned to Kenai.

Roy followed his father into the petrochemical industry. He works for Halliburton, an oil field service company, and his job takes him on extended duty stints to a North Sea drilling ship off the coast of Norway.

Five years ago, Janine found the perfect job to fulfill her calling.

She took over the moribund Love INC office, which had opened in Kenai eight years earlier.

A national organization, Love INC was founded in 1967 and is affiliated with the international Christian relief organization World Vision, she said.

It serves as a link between people in need and churches wishing to assist the needy.

"There are people all over the community who want to do something," she said. "They want to do it right."

She finds that her personal experience helps her understand people's mixed emotions about asking for help.

"We've been steadily growing. We are gearing up for our busiest time right now for the holidays," she said.

The organization will have answered about 600 requests for aid by the time the year ends, she estimated.

Linking people who want to give with those who need to receive has answered her prayer from all those years ago, her prayer to find a way to give back the favors she received through that Oklahoma church.

"As we help one individual get back on their feet, then they will be in a position to help someone else," she said.

This year, Roy will be in Norway on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, too.

However, for the Espys, every day is a day to give thanks.

"We are very thankful to God," Janine said. "That is what we focus on for Thanksgiving."

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