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Community aims to give paralyzed Appleton man a new home

Posted September 17

— Fifteen years after a horrific diving incident, John Reese thinks a lot about what life used to be and what "home" really means.

The paralyzed former Appleton firefighter has been in assisted living ever since, and has made peace with the reality that he'll never again enjoy the level of privacy most people have, the Post-Crescent (http://post.cr/2cLBD6c ) reported. Still, at age 42, he'd love a little more time alone. And he misses the quiet times — without the traffic of nurses and neighbors just beyond his door.

"A lot of times I harken back, and I think about what it was like in my own home," Reese said. "It's wistful — it was one of those beautiful, incredibly blessed time periods of my life."

Those blessings could soon return.

Today, Reese is feeling overcome by love as the community rallies to return some of the freedoms he lost to quadriplegia during a 2001 diving accident. A fundraising drive is underway to build him a home.

A benefit on Reese's behalf will be Sept. 18 at the Bridgewood Best Western Resort Hotel in Neenah.

"It's humbling," Reese said. "It's been amazing to see the family response that I've had, the friends that have come out of the woodwork — even strangers."

Reese finished his work shift on Aug. 7, 2001, and went on a pontoon boat with colleagues. Reese dove from the boat into Lake Poygan, broke his neck and suffered spinal cord damage.

He spent the next four months in hospitals and several years re-learning how to function in everyday life. He's paralyzed below the shoulders and has limited shoulder and arm movement. And he can't move his hands or legs.

Heidi Frederickson, executive director of Kaukauna's Community Benefit Tree, said the home is no small project, but there are many people dedicated "to give him a better quality of life, for John to have his life back."

The Kaukauna nonprofit is organizing the event and fundraising efforts.

Donors have already provided a plot of land in the Village of Fox Crossing, near his parents. Architects chipped in, and design work is nearly completed. It will be a duplex — with one side for Reese and the other for a hired caregiver. Reese will have rooms to accommodate his visiting, teenage children.

Supporters are seeking not only for cash donations, but firms that are willing to assist in construction and plumbing or donate materials. Frederickson said the financial side is a big hurdle with costs anticipated to reach $250,000.

"That's a big chunk of change, but it isn't impossible," Frederickson said.

Friends Paul and Jolene Moran, owners of Century Oaks Assisted Living, are working hard for Reese's cause, and Jolene thinks they can reach the goal. It hasn't been difficult to convince people to help after hearing John's story.

"It's really heartwarming," she said. "He's just a very inspirational human being."

His home will require more than construction. Supporters are also planning ways to meet his care needs in a private home setting.

In thinking of a new home, Reese's mind often returns to his earlier life.

He's come to miss the little things, like having a low-key meal in the kitchen rather than heading off to a busy commons area. He's warmed by thoughts of the traditional neighborhood setting with lawns and sidewalks.

"So often, we take things for granted until they're ripped away from you or they disappear, and you think about what a blessing it was," he said.

Reese has endured some new battles in recent years.

He spent the last year in pain after developing a pressure ulcer and had a surgery in July.

He's currently recovering at Manor Care Health Services in Appleton and will soon transfer to Century Oaks — his fifth home in 15 years. From there, he'll continue to plan for a life that's a little closer to what it used to be.

A home would mean greater stability for Reese. He was forced to move twice after getting notices of involuntary discharge — akin to eviction — when new owners changed direction in services. He successfully appealed two other attempts.

"It's hard enough for somebody who's able bodied in a 30-day eviction scenario," Reese said.

Reese spends his mornings receiving care, and when his post-surgery bed rest is over, he'll be back in his wheelchair.

He enjoys taking strolls. He's found deep fulfillment in his Christian faith and in fatherhood.

But it took time to achieve equanimity, he said.

Reese was airlifted after the dive to what was then Neenah's Theda Clark Medical Center and spent a week in a drug-induced coma. He couldn't grasp his situation in those early months.

"Initially after my spinal cord injury, I was dead set on walking out of the hospital," Reese said, "and that was a real learning curve right there."

He wrestled with God and wrestled with himself.

Reese remembered how he weighed whether to head out on the boat on that fateful afternoon. It was a scorcher of a day — with a heat index of 110 — and there was plenty of work to be done on his basement renovation.

He finally figured that with a growing family, there would soon be fewer opportunities — so he went along "and everything hit the fan from there."

He was hospitalized during the birth of his daughter, Nadia. He was soon divorced.

The physical aspects of paralysis required a daunting degree of adjustment.

"It's like being born into an entirely new body," Reese said. "You learn how to suffer and how to deal with pain management, you learn how to deal with seating and posture issues; skin integrity problems and a host of other issues that go with being paralyzed."

The spiritual journey provided just as difficult a climb. He said he repeatedly read the Book of Job, and finally came to recognize he wasn't the only one suffering.

His time in a care facility with a man who suffered a traumatic head injury taught Reese some important lessons.

"It's looking at life from a perspective that so many people live with less than what I had, and in some ways, less than I have now," he said. "My body is broken — I can't operate my body like I used to — but my mind is intact."

Mother Cathy Reese said her son, as a result of his struggles, gained a deep perspective and appreciation for the most important aspects of life. His attitude and strong faith has rubbed off on others. It's been a personal blessing, she said.

"Through all of this, he's become stronger, and we've become stronger, too," she said. "It's brought all us closer to God."

John Reese said acceptance became easier once he began to shift the focus from what he couldn't do to what he could do — and being a father was a big part.

He couldn't toss the ball around in the yard but came to see there's so much more to parenthood.

"I continued, and I will continue, to throw myself into fatherhood, because I think that there's really nothing better in life," he said. "I see being a father as being a leader figure, trying to breathe wind in their sails, to teach them about God and the value of faith and family and friends."

He relishes his phone calls and visits with 16-year-old son Drake and 14-year-old Nadia. He tries to squeeze the most from every minute.

It's the idea of family that's made the fundraising so overwhelming. But while Reese is excited about hitting the goal, he hasn't lost sight that the journey is incredible. He suspects the benefit will carry a feeling of family, and anticipates a joy-filled day of friends — some of whom he'll meet for the first time.

"To see so many people who are in good positions — to just be charitable, to share their time and talent and resources and reach out with love and compassion — is just humbling," Reese said. "It's a joy to see and I'm touched. My heart is really touched."

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