Friends Helping Friends: Giving back

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Linda Jones, of McGregor, sits with her dog, Toby, who was a gift from her family after her cancer diagnosis 10 years ago. Displayed with her are T-shirts from many years of the Friends Helping Friends fall cancer walk that Linda helps organize. The group’s Winter Triathlon and Benefit is March 8 and 9, in McGregor.

Jones shares experiences with personal health crisis and the group she’s passionate about

By Becky Ruff

Like many efforts of so many people in communities, both small and large, the group that began what is now known as Friends Helping Friends just started planting seeds where they were needed. 

Linda Jones of McGregor was involved when it started. 

“I believe it was 1989,” she said. Linda remembers there were also a number of people from the community and from local businesses, including the Chamber of Commerce, that started doing fundraisers for various needs.  

She stated, “Punk Thornton would do the fish fries, and the first couple things we did was [to purchase] jaws of life and playground equipment up at the park. Later on we realized there was such a need for people. So we kind of flipped it over to do more for people. The organization didn’t really have a name until 15 years ago, and we decided to try to keep it within the school district area.” 

The organization became known as Friends Helping Friends. Linda said, “The very first [fundraiser] was for Punk and Shirley Thornton, when they lost their house in a fire.”

Linda acknowledges many people didn’t have the resources or family in the area to organize large benefits for them. She explained, “There were so many where their families didn’t know how to go about it, so we said we could help out. Some people would come asking for help, saying, ‘I don’t know what to do to get it started.’” The Friends Helping Friends organization pitches in to help anyone in the area with a need.

The organization currently has two main events, a Winter Triathlon, which is being held on March 8 and 9, and a Cancer Walk in conjunction with other fundraisers in the fall of each year. 

Proceeds from the Winter Triathlon benefit any community needs the committee is aware of, and funds raised from the fall event are used to purchase gas cards for cancer patients. “In the last six years,” Linda shared, “we’ve helped out about 70 people with $300 gas cards.”

Linda and numerous others from the community were responsible for getting that fall event going. In 2009, it had become personal.

“I was working at Cabela’s then, and my wrist was hurting so bad I couldn’t sleep at night,” she remembered. “I’d gone five years without ever going to the doctor. My niece convinced me to go get a physical, and from that I had a mammogram and colonoscopy done. That’s when it was discovered that I had colon and liver cancer.” Mysteriously, the wrist pain went away, but Linda was in for a difficult road ahead.

“They told me it was stage four,” she said, “and when you hear that, you automatically think, ‘well, that’s the end of it.’” She had surgery to remove parts of her liver and colon, and then faced a year and a half of chemotherapy and radiation. “I wasn’t able to take the last three chemo treatments,” she said. “I was just too sick. I had lost 20 pounds in no time at all.” She was able to complete the radiation, and then finished later with a smaller round of chemo.

She faced an additional hardship when she lost her job due to her health condition. “I was working nights,” she explained, “and I was getting treatments during the day, and then was too sick to work. I lost my insurance and still had bills to pay.”

The experience taught her much about perspective and gratitude. 

“The most dramatic thing,” she shared, “was losing my hair. As a woman, that’s just hard. But then I realized, it’s just hair, and I can put on a wig and get ready so much faster. My grandkids kept me going, made me laugh and kept me from just thinking about myself.”

Through it all, her family stepped up to help: “My sister drove me to treatments. Sometimes I had to go every day. My daughter quit her job, started selling candles at night so her husband could stay home with the kids, so that she could help pay my rent during that time. My son was helping out, doing maintenance on the house and bringing meals. I was very fortunate. Prayer does work, it really does.”

She is also thankful for her care team at Franciscan Skemp in La Crosse. “My chemo and radiation doctors, and the whole staff up there were just wonderful,” Linda said.

It’s been 10 years since her diagnosis, and Linda now goes for yearly CT scans, and colonoscopies are currently scheduled for every three years. “They’ve found some small polyps every so often, and those have been removed, but nothing more than that,” she said. “So far, everything’s been good.” 

She’s thankful for that fateful nudge from her niece that originally got her to the doctor. “I want people to remember to get their check-ups,” Linda added.

She’s aware now, more than ever, of even the simple things. “Every day you’re just grateful, just putting on your shoes. So grateful, you just have to keep smiling, and just have to keep looking at the bright side of everything that is going on around you,” she said.

She is also keenly aware of others’ struggles: “You get that guilt feeling, looking around at young people that have lost their lives. I think, they’re so young, and I question why am I still here? I’ve talked to my pastor about that. It’s out of my hands. It’s God’s way, and things will work out. I lost my parents when I was 12, and you do go on.”

Though Linda has always been a helping person, she said what she endured has intensified her desire to contribute, and she has noticed the same with the people who have been assisted by Friends Helping Friends. “People that have benefited in the past have come forward to help later,” Linda said. “There are also so many people that aren’t on the actual committee that help out every year. It’s the whole community of people, including business owners, that deserve credit. We couldn’t do it without all the volunteers and donations.”

“I want to see [the group] keep going and help as many people as we can,” she said. “Even giving someone a gas card—[gas] is so expensive, and that’s something insurance doesn’t cover. Seeing the appreciation on their face is so rewarding.” 

Thinking back on her own experiences, she said, “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance in life. I think I’ve become more passionate to help people. So this group is very important to me to be able to help people. As long as I can keep doing it, I will keep doing it. It’s just such an important thing.”

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