Birthday Wishes

            “Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it.”—W.W. Jacobs


          “One of the greatest gifts I have ever gotten is my daughter.”—Ace Frehley


            Warning to the Reader:  The following words are full of the heart, sentimentality, and the emotion of a parent.  While I originally planned to write part two of a travel piece, it will have to wait as I must, instead, write from a deep sense of gratitude.  If sappy stories don’t appeal to you, then perhaps this piece of writing is not for you. 




Friday mornings at my school, St. Joseph Catholic School, are devoted to church.  Our weekly church service for students, staff, and community is a part of our schedule to which I look forward.  I love seeing students of all faith backgrounds, grades Kindergarten through eighth grade, come together for the sole purpose of quieting the heart and mind in order to hear God speak.


This past Friday was no exception.  For whatever reason, my homeroom students and I were the first to arrive for mass.  As we made our way to the designated pews, we all knelt together.  I was struck by a gnawing feeling of which I could not quite decipher.  Normally, I can relax and slip easily into a prayerful mode, but it was eluding me.  In fact, all morning, something felt off.  Even a co-worker before mass asked me if I was ok because she said I, “looked out of sorts.”  At the time, it struck me as odd.


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As the service began, my phone vibrated on the pew beside me with the beats of someone calling.  I ignored it because I was in church.  It stopped, but began immediately anew.  I looked down and saw my daughter’s name on the screen, and I knew . . .


Since the last few days of July, Madelyn, my daughter, had been fighting an unknown illness.  Bumps and lumps developed under her arms, and she complained of pain.  She switched deodorant several times.  She’d go without deodorant.  She switched soap.  She went to several different doctors.  She was diagnosed and prescribed one thing after another over the coming weeks with varying diagnoses with little to no improvement.


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As a parents, John, my husband, and I felt helpless especially once she returned to Bethany College, four hours away from home.   I would find myself saying seemingly trite phrases such as, “Take care of yourself;” “Get some rest;” “Drink plenty of water;” and so forth.  The only thing we could really do was listen when she called, offer our love and support, and encourage her to take action in whatever form she felt appropriate.


However, this past week, Maddie had called every day as her symptoms seemed to come to a head.  She was frustrated, tired, and stressed.  Nothing seemed to be working, and she felt like no one was listening to her.  In her mind, she was seen as just another whiny, female college student seeking attention.




Finally, Maddie asked me to ask my health-care provider his opinion.  She had been researching her symptoms, talking with a concerned professor, and was worried the bigger issue was being overlooked.  All of her symptoms pointed to scary sounding words that mostly started with the letter L:  Lupus, leukemia, lymphoma, and one random condition called, hidradenitis suppurativa.


Therefore, I reached out to Alan Maynard, the health care provider for John and me.  He very generously and nearly instantly took time to look at the pictures and texts Maddie had sent my way.  He told me to tell her to insist on blood work on her next visit to the doctor and possibly ask for an ultrasound.  Then, the next day, out of the blue, Alan sent me another message advising that Maddie should ask about hidradenitis suppurativa.




When the phone buzzed the second time during church, I knew I had to answer it.  I quickly stepped outside into the bright, clear sunshine.  The blood work Madelyn had insisted upon at Alan’s urging revealed an elevated white blood cell count.  A doctor from the local Med Express had just called her to say she needed to report to the ER immediately.

“But I am fine, Mom, really.  Jill will take me.”


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Oh boy.  I looked up at the sky.  Now what?  She’s four hours away.


I slipped back into church and sat down by John, who also teaches at SJCS.


“We need to go,” he said.


“You need to go be a Mom,” said our principal, Carol Templeton.


“We’re a family.  We got both of your classes,” stated Justina White, our assistant principal.




         Maddie, and one of her roommates, Jill, try to keep it light in the ER in Washington, PA.


Without belaboring any more details, our minds raced from one thought to another during the time it took to quickly pack, gas up, and make the drive.  Jill, one of Maddie’s roommates, sent me regular text updates when Maddie could not.   With each one, John and I grew more worried:  IV drip of antibiotics, several vials of blood drawn, and ultrasound on armpits . . . ..


Looking back, I know my story-writing mind went into hyper-drive from the moment I took the call, but when you’re a parent, your kid is your priority—even at college age.  Still, I should have talked myself down.  I mean, we did get through potty training, the middle school years, and numerous other illnesses, including a broken arm, right???




Barring a random issue showing up in her blood that is still being cultured as I write this, all tests indicate that Alan’s instincts were correct: hidradenitis suppurativa.  And, while that is a lifetime condition for which there is no, per se, cure, it is NOT any of the L-words, and for that, I am grateful.  It can hopefully be successfully managed, once infection and initial treatment have been completed, with a few lifestyle changes.


For the record, while I had secretly been wishing I could see my daughter for my upcoming birthday, but knew she was busy, I would have preferred to spend time with her under completely different conditions!  Still, I feel it was a gift to have once more wrapped my arms around my beautiful daughter, listen to her banter, and see those green eyes dance as she chided us for making the drive up.






I was further blessed to interact with her friends who, thankfully, take good care of each other.  Additionally, I am blessed with the love of husband who said, “We need to go,” and the support of a school family who allowed that to happen.  And, of course, I also felt blessed by the love, prayers, and support of family, friends, and loved ones.


P.S.  Thank you Sandy Taylor, Amy Vanhorn, Jillian and Stu, Dr. Kitchens, Cathy and Stephanie as well as the staff of Hampton Inn Wheeling.  We appreciate your extra efforts as well!!!


P.P.S.  Thank you Alan for listening to Maddie when she felt her complaints were falling on deaf ears!  You rock!












Fall in Love with the Greenbrier Valley on your next Weekend Excursion, Part 1: Alderson, WV

           “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”—L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

           “Fiery colors begin their yearly conquest of the hills, propelled by the autumn winds.  Fall is the artist.”Animal Crossing:  Wild World (Nintendo video game)

          **Author’s note: This is the first of two installations regarding the Greenbrier Valley area.  This piece will focus mostly on Alderson, WV. Next week will focus more on Lewisburg, WV.




           It is the time of year when there is an itch that needs scratched like that place on your back that is hard to reach.  Beginning in September, a desire to take a Fall weekend escape into the mountains begins to develop in the minds of many.  Fortunately, living in the Tri-state, we do not have to travel far as all three of our local states, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, offer an array of multihued hillsides. However, if you want to drive a little further off the beaten path, look no farther than the scenic Midland Trail through WV.

           This past August, John and I traversed part of the Midland Trail on our way to a weekend stay in Alderson and Lewisburg, WV.  Given Interstate 64 construction traffic, it seems more people than ever are traveling along this beautiful and historic trail, first established hundreds of years earlier by Native Americans.   Much later, after the invention of automobiles and the unquenchable desire of Americans to travel about the country, U.S. Route 60 became the first transcontinental highway that connected travelers from Virginia to California.


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           However, there is no need to cross the country for a great fall weekend escape.  Instead, focus on the nearby miles of bi-way linking Huntington to White Sulpher Springs and all of the sites in between.  From covered bridges to historic cemeteries; from craft beers, ciders, and spirits to exquisite and/or quaint restaurants, diners, and bakers; from antiques/vintages to fine arts and local crafts; from charming hikes and bike rides to fishing, kayaking, and golf—not to mention all of local shops—there is plenty to do along this drive!  In fact, on the weekend of our retreat, John and I felt as if we barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do just in the Alderson/Lewisburg areas.

           To begin, John used a popular home rental site to find a small, newly restored, and definitely budget-friendly cottage in which to stay in Alderson within walking distance of the Greenbrier River as well as the historic downtown area.  While the owner of the cottage was still working a few of the kinks out of the remodel, the cottage was clean, comfortable, and filled with all new furniture, appliances, and kitchenware. It was perfect for our purposes!


The cottage was within walking distance of the Greenbrier River and Historic Alderson.


           We arrived Friday afternoon and used that time to get acquainted with our surroundings.  Alderson was quiet, quaint, and quintessentially surrounded by the layered magnificence of the WV Mountains.   Additionally, John and I could not help but notice several lion statues as throughout the town.




          We would learn that in 1890, there was a town resident who unbelievablely adopted a circus lion cub!  Although tamed by the owner, the cat often escaped its owner’s yard only to roam through town. While I am sure this was roaringly (pun-intended) funny, the town ultimately passed an ordinance that required all lions to be leashed! According to our unverified source, that city ordinance is still on Alderson’s books!  Thankfully, during our stay, at least, John and I did not encounter any oversized circus felines!



           The town’s roots, however, stretch back even further.   Several sources point to the belief that this area of WV was initially the site of a fort in the 1750’s.  These same sources state that the Shawnee destroyed the fort around 1763 under the leadership of Chief Cornstalk.  However, no artifacts have ever been found at this site to verify its existence, but there are several historic documents and letters that reference it.  In fact, the Federal Prison Camp just outside the corporation of Alderson, made famous in recent history by Martha Stewart, is built upon the same grounds where the fort supposedly once stood. Most sources, however, credit John Anderson, who organized the first Baptist church in the Greenbrier Valley, for establishing the town in 1777.




           During our stay, John and I strolled alongside the Greenbrier River and crossed over the historic, pedestrian Alderson Bridge in order to explore the Alderson Historic District where we discovered Alderson’s Store.  This 131-year-old store was charming with an eclectic mix of vintage, antiques, and modern wares. Little did we know until weeks later, that the woman running the shop was none other than Sarah Alderson, direct descent of John Anderson, whose family has lived in Alderson for over 200 years!  In addition to this store, there were several other cute shops, a couple of diners, an artisan’s gallery, and the Old Victorian Inn that is directly across from the Historic 1896 C&O Amtrak Depot. In fact, Amtrak will, upon request, make stops at Alderson on its Cardinal Route.






           One item of interest that John and I were unable to do during our stay in Alderson was visit the Alderson Visitor Center. This newly created tourist attraction offers visitors a local history museum, a river science center, interactive kiosk, as well as Alderson memorabilia for purchase.  (Hmm. I wonder if they have any “Martha Stewart was Here” t-shirts?)  Additionally, the center boasts a community market Saturdays 8-12, May-October.




           John also used this opportunity to wade and fish the waters of this section of the Greenbrier.  He had fun catching a few small mouth bass. One evening, I watched from the riverbank as John fished his way upstream near dusk.  While I brought my gear to fish alongside him, I knew my natural inclination to be a klutz might lead me to falling, especially as darkness fell, so I sat this session out.  Still, I enjoyed watching John fish as the river waters gently meandered over rocks and around little islands.



           Then, it happened, in a split second, John tripped, slipped, and then slid under the waters of the river.  My heart raced as I quickly glanced around for help and the best route down the river bank to get to him as quickly as possible. Then, only seconds later, although it felt like a lifetime, John popped up and made his way to a nearby island of rock. Though drenched and a bit bruised, he was, thankfully, fine. Oh, the things he will do to gain my attention!



           Overall, John and I found our time spent in Alderson pleasant and oh-so-peaceful.  We would love to return during the peak of autumn—we can only imagine the fiery display of the Creator’s pallet in this gentle, river town. In the meantime, add Alderson to your list of close fall getaways.  Spend a day, or the weekend, and tell them Steph simply sent you!



                      Alderson is situated in two counties: Greenbrier and Monroe! 




Aim True: Reflections from Camp Magis 2018

              “When Jesus touches a young person’s heart, he or she becomes capable of truly great things.”  Pope Francis

              “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!”—St. Catherine of Siena




              “No, that’s okay.  I’m really not that good,” I replied to Emily one of the staff members at Camp Magis at the archery station as the eyes of a small group of 7th graders turned to me.  “I don’t need a turn.”


The archery station at Camp Magis


              It was the last day of camp.  Just the day prior, I sat with this same counselor after an activity as she asked the students to reflect for five minutes on how they could be more of a servant-leader to others. Afterwards, Emily asked each students to identify one specific action they could offer in service.  Once each student had shared, she asked another teacher and me to also share our thoughts. Typically, teachers are not asked such questions, as the focus of camp is on the students, so I was caught a bit off-guard. Nonetheless, I gave an honest reply.


Students were specifically directed to look at the clouds as they contemplated specific ways they could be a servant-leader.


              “I can model more for my students.  If I hold my students to a certain standard, then my actions need to reflect that same standard.”  

              At the time, I was thinking more about reading and writing, since that is what I teach, as well as my request for students to treat one another with respect and dignity.  I wasn’t per se thinking about specific student-oriented camp activities . . .


Kids had to work together to help one another achieve their goal in this challenge activity.


              In fact, this school year, my back pain was (pun-intended) back with a vengeance. The effects of the ablation and epidural shots during the 2016-2017 school year for my three bulging discs had worn off months ago, but I had not yet returned to the doctor because I am still paying those bills.  Therefore, my pain-level during camp often kept me from fully participating in several of the physical activities. My heart broke because my former, younger body longed to fully participate right alongside my students. Still, I long ago learned to respect my physical limitations, while participating to the degree possible.



            During the bike riding activity, Ava, a student from another school, was in my group and did not know how to ride a bike.  I was given the task of helping Ava.  By the end of the hour and several crashes later, she had successfully made four short rides around the front lawn!


              Thus, when Emily challenged me to shoot a bow at the archery range on that last morning, I had politely declined. Then, I recalled my reply for how I could be more of a servant-leader for my students.  Why couldn’t I shoot a bow? Sure, I would have to stand in one place which often triggers my back pain, but I wasn’t lifting anything heavy, and shooting the bow would certainly not inflict more harm.

              Then, one of my students, Hope, said, “Come on, Ms. Hill.  You can do it. Show ‘em girls are better than boys!” as the one of the other chaperones in the group was male.

              Looking into her imploring eyes, I replied, “Sure. Why not?’

              Emily smiled with delight.  “Good! We’ll have a contest to see which chaperone is the best shot!”

              “Oh, brother,”  I inwardly moaned as she lined up the three chaperones . . .


                      Various images from Camp Magis 2018.


              John, my husband, and me, along with parent volunteers, were chaperones for St. Joseph Catholic School 7th graders attending 2018 Camp Magis.  This annual fall retreat is held at the Bishop Hodges Catholic Pastoral Center located on a 1400-acre property situated in the mountains just outside of Huttonsville, WV.  It is a beautiful outdoor setting with an ongoing operating farm, chapel, and expansive campus designed to be used for various purposes. One of those purposes occurs the fall of each school year: Camp Magis.  Operated by the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, this six-week period invites 7th graders from the various WV Catholic Schools to spend a few days in attendance.




              The main purpose of the camp is, “ . . . to help young people fall in love with Jesus Christ and His church.” However, it has several other goals.  By stepping out of the classroom setting and away from screens (students do not use phones/computers during their three-day stay), students spend time with one another engaged in meaningful activities designed to help them recognize that they have more in common with one another than they do differences.  Students are also asked to step outside their comfort zone, and perhaps even, overcome a fear or two, by participating in new experiences/challenges. It is further hoped that students will then return home and seek their own unique way to serve Christ and others. However, John and I have found that it is not just the kids who are reached by these goals.



              Magis means more.  Therefore, throughout the week, campers are asked to, “do more” in each activity and/or setting:  pray more, fellowship with friends more, and offer more service to others. Each activity begins and ends with student-led prayer.  Some form of worship service is held at the chapel each day. Bonding time with friends increases just by the mere face-to-face interactions as well as team work that if often required by the on-going scheduled activities.  Additionally, opportunities for service are programmed into each day.




              Meanwhile, back at the archery range on the last day of camp.  . .

              “Oh well, no one has high expectations for me,” I thought to myself. “Still, I might as well try my best since that is what I would ask of my students.” Therefore, I listened carefully to Emily’s instructions as to how to aim and shoot the six arrows into the target ahead  . . .

              After the round, Emily carefully counted the points on each chaperone’s target.  Who knew there were points in archery? I thought it was about how many arrows we could each get into the target.   Oh boy . . .



              Before the close of the archery activity, Emily provided us with a mini-science/object lesson.

              The drawn string with an arrow attached is filled with potential energy similar to what is present in each person. Once the arrow is shot, the bow serves its purpose as the arrow is driven forward to its target by kinetic energy.  In fact, if a bow is shot without an arrow, the undirected energy can break the bow. And, so it is with us.

              Adults and kids alike need a purpose for our energy.  We can choose to mindlessly go through life, throwing our energies into various endeavors; but without any real direction, we risk being broken, or at the very least, living a purposeless life.  The Creator formed each of us with a purpose in mind. Finding our purpose is possible when we allow Divine Providence to lead us. However, that requires time spent with a quiet mind in prayer, meditation, or reflection. It requires, not only time spent seeking and asking, but also time spent listening with an open heart/mind. It may take years to find individual purpose, but, just as Emily shared with the kids, once found, the Ultimate bow guides our aim towards our desired target.  And when this happens, well, look out world!



              Thus, it is a worthwhile endeavor, just as we did in camp, to take time daily to ask/reflect/meditate/pray to discover what our potential energy is calling us to do more of.   Therefore, I ask you, Dear Reader, as well as myself: What is our purpose? How will we use our energy?




              Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, I happened to win the archery-shooting contest.  Luck? Most likely, but it would not have happened without my willingness to humble myself in service to do more for the sake of a student.  Magis.




A Tribute to Mike Mullens aka “Papaw Mike”

           “Our lives are not measured in years, but are measured in the lives of people we touch around us.”—Suzanne Collins

           “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”—2 Timothy 4:7-8 as read by Jake Helton upon the passing of his Papaw, Mike Mullins

           Author’s Notes:  This is not a story about me, yet to tell it right, I must include bits of my life only to illustrate the positive impact one person can have upon others.  The sole purpose of this narrative to honor and uplift the memory of a beloved man.

           As John, my husband, and I approached the funeral home, we could not help but notice that it was located directly beside Heiner’s, where our dear friend, Mike Mullins, had spent 27 years of his adult life working.  I smiled at the thought of the family gatherings in which we attended with Mike’s family where Heiner’s buns, rolls, and/or bread were served. I remember him once telling me, with a note of certainty and sternness in his eyes, “Steph, you gotta support local businesses.  It’s real men’s lives and families at stake.”




           It was not the first time Mike spoke forcefully to me.  Neither would it be the last, nor would I be the only one to be on the receiving end of his firmly rooted convictions.  He said what he meant, he lived by what he said, and by golly, anyone for whom he cared should also live by those same principles.  Mike lived his life wholeheartedly—passionate beliefs, passionate appreciation for those “doing the right thing,” and a passionate distaste for those doing the opposite. Most of all, Mike possessed a deeply abiding love for his family as well as others for whom he cared.  




           Given such strident persuasions, I more than once witnessed Mike’s face redden and contort with outrage whenever he witnessed, thought, or spoke of another person who had crossed his line of right and wrong.  Fortunately, I was never, per se, at the receiving end, but I was always certain where Mike stood. Therefore, when his son, Todd, stated at his funeral, “Dad had a way of getting your attention” in order to let the listener know his belief, well, I certainly believed it!  However, I always knew Mike loved my husband, our daughter Maddie—who called him, “Papaw Mike,” and me.




           I came to know Mike, and his sweet wife Betty, through a gradual series of life successions.  First, I began working with his daughter, Kelli Helton, nearly 30 years ago at South Point Elementary when she was still Kelli Mullens.  It was there that our friendship and trust of one another began to evolve. A few years later, when Kelli and I were teaching across the hall from one another at Burlington Elementary, Maddie went to preschool with her son, Jake.  Soon enough, she became fast friends with Jake and began to feel Josh was the younger brother she never had. That same year, Maddie began to play soccer with both Jake and his cousin, Noah, Todd’s son. Therefore, every fall and spring was spent with the Helton/Mullens clan at the local YMCA soccer field.  In fact, countless weekends throughout Maddie’s elementary and middle school years were spent with Kelli and her family.




           Additionally, I drew even closer to Mike and Betty because of the fact I had the privilege of teaching both of Kelli’s sons during the 15 years I taught Kindergarten.  It was during the school year in which I taught Jake, that I was especially on the receiving end of Mike’s strength and love. Early in that school year, one of Jake’s classmates lost his life.  While I worked hard at school to help the kids through their grief, I secretly spiraled into the worst depression I have ever experienced. My faith was shook to its core, but I dared not outwardly reveal it.  




           Throughout that school year, during the kid’s soccer games, Mike would grab me with a force of strength, and wrap me up in his arms as if I was his own daughter.  Then, he would tell me he loved me and was praying for me. It was as if he knew my tightly hidden secret. He would whisper in my ear, so no one else heard, “Steph, don’t let this get you down.  You gotta keep strong for those kids. You gotta trust God.” Then, he’d pull away and look into my eyes with such ferocity; I felt as if he was trying to shoot strength into my very soul. Looking around the funeral home this past Sunday, I had to wonder the number of other people for whom Mike had also done this.  




           From the opening notes of Casting Crowns’ version of “Beulah Land,” to Mercy Me’s, “I Can Only Imagine,” and finally, to the organist’s rendition of “When We All Get to Heaven,” the funeral was a fitting tribute to Mike.  In front of me was Kelli with one arm strongly wrapped around her mom as her Dad would have done. Her brother, Todd, spoke with the heart and conviction of his Dad. Jake, Mike’s oldest grandchild, read two passages from “Papaw’s Bible” that he had selected on the previous day in his own Bible only to find those same passages highlighted, the following day, in his grandfather’s Bible.  Josh, Noah, and Grace, Mike and Betty’s other grandkids, firmly held steadfast jaws and faces in the same manner as I had witnessed Mike hold his on numerous occasions requiring strength. The service was filled with tears, laughter, and the poignant beliefs and memories of Mike Mullens.




          When John and I entered the funeral home, sunlight filled the skies with brilliant radiance, reminding me of Mike’s radiant eyes when he smiled.  As we exited the building upon the funeral’s conclusion and began our drive to the cemetery, the clouds were brooding with the temperament of Mike when he was worried about a loved one or someone who had committed a transgression.  Soon those clouds became threateningly dark, reminding me of the way Mike’s eyes could darken whenever he observed or spoke of a person’s misbehavior or “wrong” opinion. During the graveside ceremony, the sky began to cry rain as I had seen tears stream down Mike’s etched face on more than one occasion when he was feeling moved or saddened.  Driving away, the skies unleashed their anger, shooting daggers of lightning bolts and booming thunder. I had to inwardly grin; I had certainly known to Mike verbally unleash stormy words of clarity with those who had crossed the line! It seemed as if the day’s weather was full of Mike’s passion.


Mike and his wife, Betty, were married 52 years!


           An hour or so later, as John and I were driving away from our own church’s evening mass that we attended after Mike’s services, we saw a colorful rainbow arching out and from the heavens above. How fitting, I thought, as we drove down 5th Ave of Huntington, that our entire drive was spent moving towards an eternal sign of peace and love.  It was as if, in full Mike Mullens style, he had the final words of the day after all. “I am in my heavenly home. I am at peace.”


Driving home down 5th Ave, John and I followed this rainbow home. I didn’t realize until after I took the picture, that the MU soccer stadium is the picture. What fitting irony.


           Once more, I could hear him whisper not only to me, but also to all that he knew and loved.  “You gotta get through this. You gotta stay strong. You gotta trust God.”

           Rest in Mike. Rest in peace.  You will be missed, but you will not be forgotten.

P. S.  Mike’s testimony from when he turned his life over to God can be found below.  It is worth reading!