Hospice volunteer’s gift is empathy

By | November 18, 2009

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Irene Pranica (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

But Irene always came home to Sobieski and it was the guy from out in the country (she lived in town) who stole her heart. His name was Andrew Pranica but no one ever called him that. The world would always know him as “Sparky,” a nickname he got as a kid.

“He was 17 years older than me. He always laughed, he knew me when I was born,” said Irene.

They would raise two children, Mary Pranica, who is an assistant manager for Tommy Bahama, a cruise-wear retailer, and Peter Pranica, who is the TV play-by-play announcer for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. He got his dream, said Pranica, with his first days in broadcasting working on the radio station at Premontre High School in Green Bay.

Irene and Sparky raised their children on a piece of land that came from her husband’s family and enjoyed life in the country. She worked for a time part-time for the diocese after her marriage. Back then, she said, the rule was when a woman married, she could only work for six months full-time afterwards for the diocese. She worked as a study center moderator at the Catholic high schools when her children attended, which helped pay for their educations and made it more convenient to get them into Green Bay. “Catholic education was very important to us,” she said.

Your Catholic Neighbor

Name: Irene Pranica

Parish: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Sobieski

Age: 71

Favorite saint: Maximilian Kolbe

Words to live by: “Wherever the path of life leads, always be true to yourself and remember from whence you came.”

In 1993 Irene’s world started to change. She was the one to find her beloved mother dead in her home on Dec. 22, 1993, and then the next October she lost Sparky. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the day before and she didn’t have the opportunity once again to say her good-byes. “I always felt cheated because I never said good-bye,” she said.

“That was really pretty devastating,” said Irene sitting in the comfortable home she and Sparky built together. As she started to look at picking up the pieces, “I truly felt I didn’t have a purpose in life,” she said, remembering, “There was just no reason to get up in the morning.”

But then slowly Irene started to take chances again. In September 1995 someone recommended her for the part-time position as parish secretary at her lifelong parish of St. John Cantius in Sobieski, which today is part of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish. She’s still there today.

In 1997 she opened an envelope with a request from Unity, the hospice and palliative care program that serves the 12-county region of Northeast Wisconsin, to insert into the bulletin an announcement for volunteers.

“It sounded like something I would like,” she said.

“The reason I went into social work, I just love being with people, especially elderly people,” Irene said.

For a dozen years now, Irene has been a faithful volunteer with Unity, Leaders in Hospice and Palliative Care, which in November celebrates National Hospice Month. Earlier this year she was honored at the Wisconsin Public Service Volunteer Awards as the runner-up for the Associated Bank Heart of Gold Lifetime Achievement Award. “That was quite an experience,” she said.

She has been active as a companion sitter, facilitates bereavement groups, and currently coordinates monthly luncheons for women who have suffered loss. And she is now at work on her 73rd prayer shawl. The prayer shawls are presented to patients who are in the Unity program and Irene said as she knits she prays for the people who will receive them.

“Irene truly gives from her heart,” said Lisa De Sieno, director of Bereavement and Volunteer Services with Unity. “During this month, where we recognize hospice on a national level, I believe Irene embodies this heart of hospice within her own community. She has taken her own personal experiences of loss and found a seed of hope that has grown to overflowing which she in turn shares with others in their times of need. She offers a quiet, gentle and understanding presence.”

“All of a sudden you are alone,” Irene said of loss, adding, “It gets better but you don’t forget.”

She loves what she does, helping people get through their loss to begin a new life. Her advice to those suffering loss and dealing with grief is this: Don’t let anyone tell you how long it should take to work through the pain. But also don’t be afraid to take chances to make a new beginning.

Her advice to those who want to support a friend or loved one dealing with a loss, especially with the holidays so close? Don’t forget them and don’t think it gets easier any time soon.

“A friend of mine lost her husband. I call her every year on the anniversary,” said Irene.

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