By Cheryl Magness
On April 4, about 65 people, including students from two St. Louis-area Lutheran schools, made cards and assembled care packages during a servant event at The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) International Center (IC) in St. Louis. The goal? Sending messages of hope to those facing cancer.
The event was a joint effort of the IC and Phil’s Friends, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization (RSO). In 2004, Phil’s Friends founder Phil Zielke was preparing to graduate from Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill., when he was diagnosed with stage 4B Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He underwent aggressive chemotherapy, was pronounced cancer-free and went on that fall to begin a new position as an LCMS schoolteacher.
In April 2005, three months before his planned wedding, Zielke found out that his cancer had returned. He postponed his wedding, stepped back from teaching and underwent a second round of treatment, including additional chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant.
“It was while I was in the hospital,” Zielke said, “that the idea for Phil’s Friends was born. Going through the disease for a second time, there were times I felt hopeless. But I was supported through all of it by the thoughtfulness and love of so many people who sent cards, care packages and, most important, prayers. A high point of every day was 1 p.m. because that’s when the mail was delivered.”
Zielke believes that God used his illness to prepare and equip him to help others in similar situations. In November 2005, after again being pronounced cancer-free, he resumed teaching; married his fiancée, Carrie; and began looking for ways to bless others as he had been blessed — through cards, care packages and prayers.
In 2009, he left teaching to devote himself full time to Phil’s Friends. Within a few months, the organization outgrew the Zielkes’ basement, and the first Phil’s Friends Hope Center — a place for volunteers to gather and work — was established. In 2017, a second Hope Center was opened in Crown Point, Ind. To date, Phil’s Friends has sent more than 42,000 care packages and more than a million cards to people suffering with cancer. Zielke likes to describe the work of Phil’s Friends, in short, as bringing recipients “the right message at the right time.”
Royce Hartmann, principal of Christ Community Lutheran Middle School in Kirkwood, Mo., accompanied 22 of his school’s fifth-grade students to the April 4 servant event. “We have a God who loves us and has blessed us with so much,” Hartmann said. “This is an opportunity for the students to give back by serving others.”
After greeting the students, Zielke asked if anyone in the room knew someone currently facing cancer. One of the fifth-graders, Vivian Pozzo, raised her hand. “My father will have his last cancer treatment this week,” she said, adding that he had been receiving treatments since November.
Zielke said the exchange is not unique. “Wherever I go, I ask the same question, and there is almost always a similar story,” he said. Zielke invited Pozzo and her friend, Hannah Kate Broge, to fill a care package for Pozzo’s father. Then all of Pozzo’s classmates signed their names on the box, and Zielke led the group in a prayer for Pozzo’s father. “Most of our cards and care packages are made by volunteers who don’t know the recipient,” Zielke said, “so it is especially meaningful when someone can make a care package for a friend or family member.”
Jonathan Butterfield, principal of Lutheran High School South in St. Louis, brought 14 student volunteers to the servant event: nine sophomores, two juniors and three seniors. Butterfield said that the school stopped requiring service from its students a few years ago, intentionally shifting “to a culture of inspiring as opposed to requiring service hours.”
“We want to cultivate hearts in kids that serve because they understand the purpose for which they have been created, as opposed to serving begrudgingly or viewing the opportunities simply as a hoop to jump through to graduate,” Butterfield said. “These students were all extremely excited to come, and while this may sound odd to some who don’t know our kids, they were willing to miss some class even though they knew they would have to catch up, on their own time, on what they missed.”
For Butterfield, as for Pozzo, the event hit close to home. Butterfield’s mother died from cancer in 2020, and his wife, Leanna, is currently receiving treatment. “We are very familiar with the kind of hope that organizations like Phil’s Friends provide to those in the middle of the battle,” Butterfield said. In addition, the Butterfields knew Zielke in college, “so getting involved was a no-brainer on multiple fronts.”
In addition to the event at the IC, Zielke also visited four St. Louis-area schools. Deaconess Dorothy Krans, director of the Synod’s RSO program, said that such events bless not only the beneficiaries of the event but also those who volunteer. “We try to get the word out about everything our various RSOs are doing, but nothing compares to getting personally involved and seeing the work up close.”
It was clear that the young people who came to the IC on April 4 agreed. When asked “What was the best part of today?” one fifth-grade girl responded, “Giving people hope.” Another said, “Helping other people be happy.”
When Zielke asked the students what they thought was the most important item to put in a Phil’s Friends care package, a young man named William quickly responded, “The Bible.” Why? “Because it gives people even more hope.”
Anyone can request a care package for someone facing cancer. There are opportunities to volunteer from the comfort of your home or in your church, school, youth group or community organization. For more information, visit philsfriends.org, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 224-653-8315.
Posted April 28, 2022