Compassion second nature to Catholic Central grad
By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald
Fourth in a series of stories featuring inspiring 2008 Catholic high school graduates from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
BURLINGTON - Odds are that the average person would have a tough time keeping pace with Valerie Ketterhagen.
For Ketterhagen, her June 7 graduation from Catholic Central High School marked the end of a long, arduous journey that began more than four years ago when her father, Gary, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. In remission following the first set of chemotherapy, the cancer returned this year and settled in his lymph nodes.
"It was heartbreaking for all of us," she said. "He went for chemo again for four weeks and the spots seemed to have gone back down; we are hoping that this works. If this doesn't work then he might have to have a bone marrow transplant."
The youngest of three children, the Burlington teen took it upon herself to make sure her father's days were peaceful and comfortable during his off and on chemotherapy treatments.
"My parents are divorced so I live with both parents for part of each week," she said. "I try to do what I can to help make things easier for him."
In addition to coping with her father's illness, Ketterhagen is battling her own health issues in conjunction with caring for two young foster children and a host of activities that leave little time for self-pity.
"I've been having trouble with seizures, and they have been doing all sorts of testing to find out what is wrong with me; so far they don't know," she said. "I think it could be stress, but I am trying to maintain a steady, healthy life to help me get through all of that."
Nearly three years ago, Ketterhagen's mom, Marlene, opened her home to two girls, Albie age 2 and Joleen age 3 months, who needed a safe place to live.
"My mom knew their mother from AA and the girls' mother was having trouble with her own recovery," she said, adding, "The girls were in several different foster homes but things weren't working out. The girls weren't being treated right, so their mother asked my mom to care for them until she got out of rehab."
What was to be a six to nine month arrangement lasted two and a half years, ending in the mother losing her rights to her children.
"My mom would have kept them, but she knew that since she was a single mom, and 50 years old, that it would be too hard," said Ketterhagen. "We found a nice couple up north who had no children and they adopted them. They are doing really well; we just went up and saw them a couple of weeks ago."
While many teens might consider bringing two small foster children into the home a burden, Ketterhagen regarded the experience as a chance to make a difference in the lives of others. Instead of nights out with friends at the local pizzeria or attending a concert, Ketterhagen often spent evenings changing diapers, reading stories or teaching manners.
"There were days, of course, that I would rather be out with my friends, but then I realized what matters most. When I began to think that the girls could be moving out any day, I began to relax and found it nice to be with them," she said. "I was like an older sister to them and tried to teach them the right way to do things. My mom taught us that the girls are a 24-hour job - you can't just put them in a cage and leave them. My mom, my sister and I worked as a team to take care of them."
Juggling her schoolwork with six dance classes, a performing water ski club, softball, school musical, working as a lifeguard, and taking an in-school CNA class, coupled with the health issues and helping her mother with the children, it would be easy to get overwhelmed. Not so for Ketterhagen, who manages each facet of her life with tremendous faith.
"I prayed a lot, but left a lot in God's hands. I don't know how I get through everything, but I was raised with a strong faith from my parents - they both are very strong in their own Catholicism," she said. "God gave me the power to juggle everything and still maintain my grades, have an active life and still spend time with my friends. God had a plan and he knew what he was doing."
Forthright and open about her life situations, Ketterhagen appreciated the support of teachers, staff and students at Catholic Central.
"I was close to the other kids and the guidance office and teachers because we saw each other all the time," she said. "They were always right there for me and understood what I was going through."
Plans include attending UW-Milwaukee, where Ketterhagen plans to major in medicine, and one day hopes to become an obstetrician gynecologist.
The soon-to-be college co-ed expresses no regret about the many potential obstacles in her life. The hours spent caring for her dad and the two girls have strengthened her faith and resolve.
"I always knew that I was supposed to be taking care of them for a reason," she said, adding, "Those reasons will be revealed to me someday - maybe even in my future career. I don't regret any of the time I spent away from my friends. After all, I have the rest of my life and my college years to be with friends."