Unity Hospice’s ‘Gifted Wishes’ enhances lives of patients, families

Diocesan senior priest among people benefiting from program

Senior priest Fr. Robert Rhyner has been a patient of Unity Hospice since July. His condominium is surrounded by treasured mementos of a lifetime enriched by faith, friendships and family. His Nativity set was given to him by his mother. Fr. Bob, as most people know him, was recently presented with a Gifted Wish by Unity Hospice. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

DE PERE — What is your wish this Christmas Eve?

If you had just one wish, perhaps your final wish, what would it be?

For nearly two years now, Unity Hospice, which serves patients in the 13 counties of northeast Wisconsin who have life-limiting illnesses, has been enhancing the lives of patients and their families through the Gifted Wishes program. 

“Anything that we can do to bring that hope or happiness, even for a brief couple of moments, that’s what Gifted Wishes are truly all about,” explained Megan Schreck, development manager for Unity Hospice, based in De Pere.

“Wishes are funded by monetary donations by Unity employees (and volunteers) and our community,” Schreck said. “We have a fund that is right on our website (unityhospice.org),” she said. “Over the past year, as Unity employees, we funded most of the wishes.” 

A $20,000 grant to the program was also awarded by the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation.

In 2022, Unity Hospice will celebrate its 45th anniversary. It has the distinction of opening the state’s first hospice care program in 1977, the state’s first palliative care program in 2002 and the area’s first hospice residence in 2007, the Jack and Engrid Meng Hospice Residence. 

Unity operates financially independent of its partner owners — HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center, HSHS St. Vincent Hospital and Bellin Health in Green Bay.

Among all the services Unity Hospice offers, it’s been the 2020 founding of Gifted Wishes that has brightened the lives of so many people.

Last Christmas, “We had a patient who was a young mom and really wanted to provide her family with a great Christmas that was going to be her last. She had three young boys. Our team really rallied around this family,” said Schreck, providing presents for the boys and her husband. “That was a really impactful wish last year around the holidays that really made a big difference for that family and the staff,” she said.

For staff, Gifted Wishes is a godsend. “It warms my heart. There’s nothing better than going home at the end of the day after I grant a wish,” said social worker Ashley VandenElzen.

“You can have the most awful week with a lot of admissions and deaths… and you can have one Gifted Wish, and it turns your whole week around,” she said. “It is so meaningful to these patients and families, that they don’t have to worry about that financial aspect of having to do one more thing with their family.”

What have been some of those “one more things?”

Margarita’s wish was to have professional family photos taken with her husband and son. The photos were very important because Margarita left the United States shortly after the photos were taken to go to Mexico to spend her last days with her daughter.

Sharon traveled with her family to Mackinac Island and the Grand Hotel, a destination she had always wanted to visit. 

Ruth grew up in Maine and received her favorite meal — fresh clams from Maine.

Susan Heller’s mother, now 100, is a member of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Cecil and has been a Unity Hospice patient since February 2020.

“Unity has just been totally wonderful,” said Heller, who, along with some of her seven siblings, provide care for their mother so she can continue to live in her farmhouse.

“The social worker had brought all of us girls together and had explained the program to us and wanted to know what our mother might like at this point,” said Heller.

Their mother’s Gifted Wish was simple. “She got a bouquet of flowers once a month for six months,” said Heller. 

Linda Moudry, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Allouez, and a regular greeter at the Saturday evening Mass, is also a Unity Hospice volunteer. 

“I’ve been there about five years. I do all sorts of different things. I lost my best friend (Kay) to cancer and I decided to go out there and help after she passed,” she said.

At Unity Hospice, Moudry’s presence is her present. She talks with patients at the Meng Hospice Residence. She also helps with vigils. “When a patient is getting toward the end of their life and, if the family can’t make it,… I’ll go and sit with a patient, usually for a three-hour time block so they’re not alone.” She has also helped with grief therapy sessions “because I attended those myself after my friend died,” said Moudry.

And she also donates to Gifted Wishes. 

“I think it’s a great idea, and it truly brings some hope and light for them at the end of their life,” she said, recounting some of the Gifted Wishes, like a CD player so the patient could listen to music and audiobooks, and a box of their favorite snacks for another patient.

Yet another, Moudry said she was “so impressed with.” A patient wanted to be married before their death. “Our Gifted Wishes took over,” she said, and the wedding happened. “I can’t think of a bigger gift than that,” said Moudry.

In July, senior priest Fr. Robert Rhyner, 88, became a Unity Hospice patient and was recently the recipient of a Gifted Wish: gift cards for various local restaurants. Fr. Bob, as he is known to most everyone, lives with congestive heart failure.

Friends have worked-out a schedule to help him so he can continue to live in his condo, which is filled with lighthouses: “You know, you think of the light of Christ,” he said of his collection.

Fr. Bob’s conversation turns to stories of the many friends he’s made in parishes and as a hospital chaplain, how he did the opening prayer at numerous Special Olympics and how he became a member of the board of directors with the New Community Shelter — a position he still holds. He continues to celebrate Mass with the Hmong community and at Brown County’s Bayshore Village.

There are two things, Fr. Bob tells you, he wanted to do from childhood on and has accomplished: he became a priest and he learned to fly an airplane.

On Sundays, he attends Mass from the pews now, he said, “because I feel I should be part of the community.”

Bishop David Ricken’s visit and the gift of “The Surrender Novena” were meaningful for him. “The whole thing is about just letting go… instead of worrying about what’s going to happen. It’s yours, Lord,” he said.

Fr. Bob’s family is always at the top of his mind, especially his brother Jack, who has done so much for him, he said, as well as his extended family, whose rotating digital pictures are always within his eyesight.

And this Christmas, once again, the treasured Nativity set, given to him by his mother, sits under his Christmas tree. 

Like many people who become patients of Unity Hospice, Fr. Bob didn’t think he needed to begin their services. “I don’t like to admit it, but I can use the help,” he said, speaking appreciatively of his longtime friends and now his new friends — the people of Unity Hospice — who help make his days manageable. “It’s not just a job, it’s a mission, and they fulfill that very well,” he said.

“To them and to all the gift givers, they are special people, and I wish them a pleasant Christmas,” Fr. Bob said, and he wants them all to know, “that they’re in my prayers.”