COOPERSTOWN — When Patty Bekkers was diagnosed with leukemia 10 years ago, fellow members at St. James Parish immediately showed their support.
“After her diagnosis, the church stepped up and made meals for us for six months and they also cleaned our house for six months,” said her husband, Tom. “The outpouring of support was incredible. The church, the neighbors, the family and friends, they were all amazing.”
Patty spent the first two weeks at HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay before returning home and undergoing treatment for two years — all the while also handling the challenges posed by having multiple sclerosis.
Although Patty has been clear of leukemia for some time now, the couple remains thankful and continues to express gratitude the best way they know how — by doing their part to support a variety of church activities and lend a hand to anyone in the community who needs help.
“It is in giving of ourselves that we receive,” said Patty, echoing the sentiments of the couple’s favorite saint, Francis of Assisi. “We do the things we do here at church because that’s just who we are. We want to help people like others have helped us.
“If I did not have the support of Tom, if I did not have the support of the parish, if I did not have the support of our family and friends, I would not be able to do the things I do,” she added. “It truly is a family atmosphere here, and that means so much. Everybody supports me and supports what we do. We want to give back.”
Patty was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 30 years ago at the age of 22. For the past 10 years she has moved around with the aid of a walker, but that hasn’t prevented her from being active in the parish.
Patty leads St. James’ youth ministry for grades six through 12. She also has served as a religious education substitute teacher for the past five years and as a first-grade religious education teacher for 12 years. In addition, Patty coordinated the Fun and Faith program for six summers. The Bekkers can be found helping at baptism preparation sessions and most parish events throughout the year.
“In youth ministry the big thing we do usually in the fall is the National Make a Difference Day,” Patty said. “We go around the community, we rake leaves, clean gutters, wash windows, whatever people need us to do. This year we were able to help at 13 different places, including the church grounds. We had about 40 students and 15 adults involved this year.”
Patty also works with Jessica Phillips, youth ministry coordinator at All Saints Parish in Denmark, on organizing an annual mission trip.
“Last year they went to Houston, and this year they’re going to Mexico,” Patty said. “We work on fundraising for that event. I don’t go with them because of the travel, but I support everything the program does.”
Tom is involved in parish activities as well, serving as the parish’s grief support coordinator and filling in as needed as a substitute teacher for religious education classes.
“We invite anyone in the community, any denomination, who has had a loss in their life to come and share what it’s been like and get support from one another,” Tom said of the support group. “We have resources there for the taking and people who are willing to help.”
Tom was also chairperson of the parish pastoral council and is proud to have joined the Knights of Columbus. He collaborated with Gerald Schaefer in co-authoring “The Widower’s Toolbox: Repairing Your Life After Losing Your Spouse,” available at Barnes & Noble.
Tom and Patty live on the outskirts of Denmark and have been St. James parishioners for more than 25 years. They have two adult daughters, Brittney and Elizabeth, who have followed in their parents’ footsteps by helping with church activities.
Patty grew up in Francis Creek, where she attended St. Anne Parish, while Tom was raised in Greenville and attended St. Mary Parish. They married in 1990 at the former St. Joseph Church, which is now part of Silver Lake College in Manitowoc.
Over the years, the couple accepted the challenges life has presented.
Patty said multiple sclerosis didn’t hit hard until about 1995, at which time she started undergoing various treatments.
“One of them was a low-dose chemo agent and that was the one with the side effect of leukemia possibly. That’s when I got the luck of the draw and indeed got leukemia,” she said. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Did you ever ask, why me?’ I say, ‘No.’ The way I think about it, it’s always, ‘Better me than the girls.’ It could have been so much worse.
“But here we are. And I’m just happy we’re at this parish, surrounded by so many wonderful people, to help out wherever and whenever we can,” she added.