Care Calendars

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Coordinated help for someone in need

How many times have you said you’ll never take for granted the little things in life? Preparing a meal for your family. Driving your kids to activities. Even cleaning the house or mowing the lawn. It’s easy to see these things as everyday chores, but when life changes suddenly — due to an illness or injury — everyday tasks often must be put on the back burner in order to concentrate on getting well. Eventually, the reality of life sets in, and that’s when people need help.

And when there’s a need, folks in Waco — a city of more than 120,000 — mobilize as if they are a part of a much smaller community, rallying for one of its own. Often a team of caring comrades swoops in and takes over with the sole purpose of making life easier for a friend by cooking, cleaning, driving, mowing, folding laundry, grocery shopping, running errands and just listening. And these folks are usually a highly organized bunch, lead by one or two close friends who know the inner workings of the affected family and what they need.

The creation of a care calendar is a web-based system to organize meals and other help for families during a time of illness or a life-changing event. It’s easy to set up a care calendar. Just go to www.carecalendar.org and click on “Get Started” to create a new one. You’ll need to provide some information about yourself (as the coordinator) and gather some information about the recipient: contact information, the time period that help will be provided and what kind of help is needed. Then you create the calendar and share the link with anyone who may want to help.

Deanna Starling, mother of two and owner of 40 Weeks Maternity Boutique in Waco, has always been one to jump in and offer her support any way she can.

“There’s a warm and fuzzy feeling I get when I put a smile on someone’s face,” she said.

But in March 2011, Starling found herself on the other end of receiving care when she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and faced surgery at MD Anderson Cancer Center. The surgery was followed by additional biopsies, all of which zapped her strength, energy and ability to lead a normal life for a while, a life that includes her husband, Sam, and daughters, Piper, 3, and Makenzie, 2. 

“I remember feeling like the walls were closing in on me, and I was living a nightmare,” she said. “I have a husband, two young daughters and way too much life to live to be told at 25 that I have cancer. I was seriously afraid that my family was going to lose their mother, and I kept thinking Sam did not sign up to be a single daddy. It was a very scary thought process to be going through.”

Starling said she was numb for a while, and the only thing she wanted to do was hug and love on her children all day long.

“I wanted to enjoy and cherish every single moment I had with them and put all the little stuff completely aside,” she said. “Slowly but surely, I got into a routine — thanks to my wonderful husband and mom — of making sure everything was still taken care of, without any worry or stress.”

After the initial shock wore off, Starling set up her appointments at MD Anderson and took a deep breath.

“We completely handed the situation over to God and knew that he was in control and everything was going to be perfect. My faith took over, and I had a peace about everything,” she said. A care calendar was set up to help the Starling family through the months of April and May, starting the week of surgery and continuing through her post-op visit to MD Anderson.

Starling says the help came at just the right time, as the seriousness of her situation set in. As she charted this new course, she wanted everything to be as normal as possible for her children.

“Exhaustion would be an understatement. More than the physical disease and surgeries, the emotional aspect has weighed on me heavier than anything. The emotional roller coaster of waiting for results, proactive and time-sensitive decisions and recovering from a traumatic experience that I didn’t see coming was pretty hard,” she said. “We stayed in Houston almost a whole week after surgery, and I barely left my bed. My cancer was in the center chest, and the node biopsy was in my underarm, so movement after surgery was extremely limited. Tightening the smallest muscles while sitting up or down, walking and moving around were next to impossible for a while. I had four weeks after surgery where I was not allowed to lift anything (sadly, including my girls). I couldn’t lift my arms above my shoulders for endless weeks, so little things like washing my hair were handed over to my sweet hairstylist.”

But friends came to her rescue.

“Amazing numbers of friends helped with dinner, transporting the girls to and from school and playgroup, running errands and, overall, trying to keep things around here running smoothly,” she said. “Friends held prayer groups. We had Team Deanna bracelets made with my Scripture that I claimed throughout all of this, [John 16:33]. Team Deanna shirts were printed. Countless cards, emails, phone calls and texts were received from people lifting us up in prayer. It was unbelievably amazing.”

In September 2010, native Wacoan and pharmaceutical sales rep Sean Goolsby was in a car accident that resulted in traumatic brain injury (including cranial and orbital fractures), eight broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a ruptured spleen and a fractured wrist. He spent 19 days in ICU, in and out of consciousness. When he was able, he was transferred to Austin for rehabilitation, which lasted nine days.

His wife, Stefany, when faced with her husband’s devastating injuries, had to continue on with life as usual for their children, Garrett, 12, Gracyn, 10, and Graham, 8.

“The unknown was very scary,” she said. “I do not work in the medical profession, so I was looking to the hospital for information and next steps. I was in ICU with Sean all of the visitor hours. My parents stayed [at our house] to help with our children. [Sean’s] parents helped with carpooling kids.
My sister immediately started helping with the kids, also.”

A coworker set up a care calendar after Goolsby’s accident. The family received help from the time of the accident right through the holidays.

“There was an incredible show of support by coworkers, family friends, church friends,” Sean Goolsby said. “And word spread so quickly. People I hadn’t heard from in 20 years came out of nowhere to help because they heard about my accident from someone else, and they wanted to help me.”

Friends signed up to mow his lawn, bring food, clean the house and drive his kids to basketball practice, fall baseball practice and everywhere in between.

“My wife didn’t have to worry about how everything was going to get done,” he said. “That really gave me peace of mind.”

Stefany Goolsby says it was a blessing.

“It was absolutely amazing to see how friends, family, church, schools and neighbors rallied behind our every need,” she said. “We were amazed how people stopped from their busy lives to help.”

The way friends responded impressed Starling, as well.

“It would be an understatement to say our friends are ‘God-sends’ because they are so much more than that,” she said. “They are our family in Waco and the most amazing people we have ever met. I promise you that we would not be where we are today, cancer-free — hopefully — without the help, support, love and prayers from our friends.”

Learning to let go and accept help requires a humility that is hard to fully understand unless you’ve gone through a difficult time.

“I have never had to accept [this kind of] help from anyone. I am the one who always wants to give help. I thrive on helping others. I have never been in the reverse role,” Starling said. “Thankfully, I have a group of friends who told me to ‘get over it,’ that they were going to help no matter what I had to say about it. I finally realized that friends love to help friends, and the feeling of completeness I get from helping others, other people feel, too. I gave in and allowed others to help us tremendously through these hard times.”

Sean Goolsby said he was never too proud to accept that he needed help.

“Honestly, I could see the enormity of my situation and the magnitude of how people were trying to help us. Yes, I was taken back by it. And I accepted it,” he said.

Stefany Goolsby says she was told by one of her pastors to let people help.

“‘It is what they need to do,’ he told me. It is so true,” she said. “I have become even more aware of others’ needs and just volunteer to help.”

There’s no way to measure the effect a group of hopeful, prayerful and energetic friends has on a person’s recovery. But their service can give a spark of hope that all things are possible.

“Words will never be able to express how thankful we are to every single person who reached out to our family,” Starling said. “The prayers, support and love were never-ending and the biggest blessing we could ever pray for.”

Sean Goolsby agrees.

“There’s no question our friends helped in my recovery — exponentially,” he said.

Starling says she has a renewed desire to help others even when she doesn’t know them that well, isn’t sure how they will receive it, or is worried she might be overstepping her bounds. She says to follow your heart and pray about it.

“I speak from experience when I say an ‘I love you’ or a hug can mean more than anything,” Starling said. “Words of affirmation and showing someone you care will help someone battling anything feel so much stronger.”

Sean Goolsby said that after his experience of being so vulnerable, he finds himself more willing to go out of the way to help someone else.

“Where I used to open the door for someone, now I might go 10 feet out of my way to do that for someone who looks like they need it,” he said. “I think I’m more aware of people who need help. I seek them out and want to help.”

Today, Goolsby says his health is good. He’s still recovering from the injury to his wrist, which had complications. But, overall, life is good, he says.

Starling’s biopsy came back cancer-free, and her surgery was a success. After all the blood work and x-rays came back, she was cleared. In June, however, she went back to MD Anderson to have another another spot biopsied, and her team is praying for clean results.

“God is good,” Starling said.

Gimme a Break-Fast. Morning — especially before school — is a stressful time of day in the life of a family. Drop off a few quick and easy breakfast foods, like variety packs of fun cereal, muffins or breads that can be frozen, breakfast bars and frozen waffles to make the morning go more smoothly.

Free Ride. If you know someone from school, dance, baseball, church or playgroup who is experiencing a difficult time, offer to transport his or her child to and from activities. Even if your friend is mobile and able to drive, he or she might appreciate a moment alone at home to regroup.

Snack Attack. When kids are hungry, they get cranky. Help keep them happy by bringing a basket of fruit, microwave popcorn, granola bars, bags of pretzels, nuts, peanut butter (ask about allergies), carrots and celery sticks. Try not to overload your friend with too many perishable items so they won’t go to waste. And throw in a few less-healthy items, like gummy worms, Oreos and popsicles, for those desperate moments.

Maid to Order. Keeping the house clean is a necessity for a family’s physical and mental health. But someone who’s in bed, low on energy, or caring for someone who is, simply cannot do it all. Gather a few friends and offer to do laundry, change sheets, clean the kitchen and bathrooms and vacuum the house. Or, if this seems too invasive, collect funds to hire a maid service to come in once a week or twice a month.

Gift cards. Restaurant gift cards make it easy to pick up a meal on one of those days when a friend can’t even muster the strength to cook a frozen dinner. Also, gift cards to Walmart and H-E-B can be put to good use for basic needs. No matter how stable your friend’s financial situation may seem, major illness places unexpected financial burdens on families. You may never know how much that gift card helped with the grocery bill.

Green Team. If you’re fighting for your life, tall grass and overgrown weeds are the last things on your mind. Looking at a freshly mowed yard could be just the pick-me-up someone needs to feel like life is carrying on as usual. If you have a neighbor or friend in need, don’t stop the mower after finishing your own lawn. Bring it next door or down the street, wherever it might brighten someone’s day.

Time Spent. Even if you know someone well, you may not know at what moment he or she needs a shoulder to lean (or cry) on. When dropping off food or delivering a child, ask if there’s any laundry you can fold. This may provide an opportunity to listen and be there for a friend. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.

Join the Conversation