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Josh W / Josh Walzak 

Santa Claus arrives in New Bethlehem

ABOVE: Santa and Mrs. Claus made their debut in the New Bethlehem area Saturday afternoon during the Redbank Valley Chamber of Commerce’s annual Christmas Parade. The couple was escorted into the community by members of the Redbank Valley Elementary Chorus.

Josh W / Josh Walzak 

AT RIGHT: Getting ready for his first Christmas, 9-month-old Hunter Bush of Limestone checks out Santa and Mrs. Claus during the Snack with Santa event Saturday afternoon in New Bethlehem. The annual event is hosted by the New Bethlehem Fire Co.

Bowser honors veterans through Wreaths Across America

SMOKE RUN — Since 2014, Robin Bowser, of Smoke Run, has been working to ensure veterans interred at Beulah Cemetery in Ramey are remembered for their service, including during the hectic Christmas season.

As the location coordinator for the Wreaths Across America program, Bowser secures, through generous donations from local schools, organizations and businesses, sponsorship for 180 wreaths distributed through the program at the cemetery. She also coordinates wreath deliveries, secures volunteers to place wreaths and organizes a service at the cemetery to remember veterans from each branch of the military, including those taken prisoner and those missing in action, on national Wreaths Across America Day. The observance is held annually on the second or third Saturday in December. Locally a service will be held Dec. 14 at 11:45 a.m. at Beulah Cemetery.

Bowser said the service is very solemn. “When the wreaths are laid, the person who places it, before they do, is to say the name of the veteran. That way the veterans are not forgotten,” Bowser said.

The service will also include a local youth group singing the national anthem and leading the pledge of allegiance to the American flag and members of the Veteran of Foreign Wars Smithville Post and Houtzdale American Legion conducting honor guard services. Seven wreaths, one for each branch of the military and prisoners of war and those missing in action, will be placed at the cemetery’s veterans memorial. The service is held regardless of weather.

Bowser said part of the duties of location coordinator is to educate people about the importance of the Wreaths Across America program that pays tribute to men and women who volunteered their lives and talents for all branches of the military.

Wreaths across America began in 1992 when a Maine man, recalling the impression a trip to Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C., had on him and and his continued belief his life’s good fortune was a result of sacrifices made by the veterans buried there, helped to arrange to honor veterans in the oldest section of the cemetery using wreaths donated by a local company.

Since then, the program has expanded and in 2014, it grew again, to include veterans in all cemeteries where there was interest in participating in the program.

According to its website, the Wreaths Across America program exists to remember veterans 365 days a year, especially those killed during service to the U.S. “We understand we have Veterans Day in the fall and Memorial Day in the spring, but our service members sacrificed their time and safety every single day of the year to preserve our freedoms. In many homes, there is an empty seat for one who is serving or one who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. There is no better time to express our appreciation than during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.”

Bowser said she became involved with the program when it expanded to include all cemeteries. She said she chose Beulah Cemetery because her husband, a military veteran, has family, some of which are veterans, laid to rest there.

“I very much believe in the program’s mission,” she said. The program’s purpose is to “Remember the fallen U.S. veterans, honor those who serve and teach children the value of freedom.

“I also do it because of the veterans. We have no idea what they went through and had to do just to survive. I have heard stories about some my family’s veterans and the experiences they endured were terrible horrific things. Most have gone through a lot more than what they talk about,” she said.

Bowser said she wants local residents never to take veterans’ willingness and work for granted.

She said she fully supports Wreaths Across America. “The people who run this program are so dedicated to it. It is not just something they do once a year. They do what they do to honor veterans and their families.”

Bowser, also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, is requesting Clearfield County residents support the program on Dec. 14. She requests they either stand along the route the cortege, delivering the wreaths will take, or become part of the convoy.

The truck that will have a police escort will depart from St. Francis School, Clearfield, and travel through Philipsburg making a stop at the Moshannon Valley Veterans Memorial along U.S. Route 322 where a short service will be conducted by members of the Philipsburg Legion, the Army Reserves and the National Guard. It will then travel through Philipsburg, Houtzdale and on to Ramey for the 11:45 a.m. service.

“People are encouraged to be part of the escort or to show support for these special wreaths and the veterans they will honor. They can also stand along the route and show their support by waving flags, signs or honking horns – anything that will say thank you,” she said.

During the service, Bowser said she’ll be openly showing her emotions. “This is my sixth service. I cried at the first one and I’ll cry at this one. I cry every time.”

Anyone interested in starting a Wreaths Across America service at a local cemetery can contact Bowser at (814) 378-6166 for additional information.

Those interested can also visit the Facebook page, Wreaths Across America Beulah Cemetery.

A journey of faith

BROOKVILLE — Twenty-five years ago, Annette Wolbert was faced with the possibility of losing her 4-year-old son Garrett to brain cancer. Today she credits putting her faith and Garrett’s health in God’s hands as the point when good things began to happen.

In January of 1995, Garrett was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, Wolbert says. “He actually had five tumors. It was called a multifocal medulloblastoma. And then, after a month he developed eight more tumors. So he had a total of 13 brain tumors at one time, so he had to have extensive surgery. He was in the operating room for about 12 hours. He kind of stroked on the left side so he had total left side paralysis after. So he had to recover from that and he had chemotherapy and radiation to the brain.”

She said if Garrett had been any younger, there would have been nothing that could have been done because “you can’t radiate a brain that’s younger than 4 (years old) because of the damage that it does to the brain, so they don’t even try.

The doctors were hesitant even with Garrett being 4 years old, she said, “but they knew there was no survival without because with the multifocal medulloblastoma they knew they had to have chemo and radiation.”

With this being a rare cancer, it was new territory for the doctors as well as Wolbert. “At that point, there was really nobody else who had survived it so they (the doctors) didn’t know.”

They went to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh several times throughout that year. “After he recovered from his surgery we started chemo on Groundhog’s Day, actually. A day I’ll never forget because they came in and said, ‘We found eight more tumors and we need to start chemo right away.’ So, he had chemotherapy until July, and then in July we started radiation. He had seven weeks of radiation, twice a day, which was double the dose of normal doses, because they hit him very hard with radiation and he had the most powerful chemotherapy at that time because they knew they had to be very aggressive with this,” Wolbert said remembering back to those days.

The treatment took its toll on Garret, causing him to lose weight. “He went down to 26 pounds,” she said, pointing to a photo of him and saying, “This actually is when he looks good here. He’s actually starting to gain weight.” She added that she doesn’t show these pictures of Garrett going through the process to very many people.

Wolbert had just begun working at the Brookville Hospital in May of 1994. She is originally from the area and had moved back because of going through a divorce.

“When he was diagnosed I was a single mom. I had a 2-year-old also at home. So I couldn’t work,” Wolbert says. She had been working in the operating room.

Rick Bucheit, operating room director at that time, had previously worked for DuBois Regional Medical Center and there was a similar policy there as the one in Brookville that would enable coworkers to help Wolbert out by donating PTO time, your benefit time for somebody who was in need. PTO time included vacation and personal days, any hours that workers built up, including comp time. The person who receives that time has to have extinguished all of their benefits first. “So when I ran out of my sick term disability and my PTO time, then employees could volunteer to donate, whatever they wanted,” Wolbert said.

That program was a lifesaver for Wolbert. The money, comparable to the time donated, would be sent to her as a paycheck. “It wasn’t a full salary but having no income at all, it was a big help. It was a blessing, actually.”

Wolbert says she believes the policy is still in effect. “And we’ve actually helped a lot of people because of that because I know how much it’s appreciated so we try to give back.”

Garrett also gives back because of the help that was extended to him and his family from Brookville Hospital and its employees. He’s been volunteering at the hospital for the past two years. “He can’t work because of the damage that the radiation did to his brain. So he volunteers here. It’s wonderful,” she says.

He usually stays in the cardiac rehab department. “I went to other departments, but I just didn’t feel real comfortable around them. Medical records and Melissa usually has stuff for me to do but she understands and lets me take her work up to the cardiac rehab and then after I’m finished I just return it back to her,” Garrett said.

He puts charts together for the operating room such as patient instructions, puts labels on the outpatient charges for the medical records department and sometimes he works down at the com center taking stuff out of envelopes – things that need shredded – or he will go to the fourth floor and put together mission packets. He also does charts for the cardiac rehab, his mother says, adding he does a lot of highlighting, copying and stapling.

“They usually have a lot of papers on the fourth floor” but the room in cardiac rehab isn’t big enough, Garrett says, so he usually goes up to the fourth floor to do it. He also helps to clean the equipment at the end of the day in cardiac rehab.

“And if we have a patient who doesn’t know where they are going, he helps them get to where they need to go,” Wolbert says.

Garrett says he enjoys volunteering. It gives him a purpose, his mom says.

He’s been a favorite with many of the rehab patients.

Garrett tells how one girl who graduated from rehab bought a chocolate bar and gave it to him. Another patient, he said, had an eagle statue and didn’t want it anymore and gave it to Garrett.

Wolbert says patients always ask for him, adding that Garrett is “a big help to us.”

With January marking the 25th anniversary of Garrett’s cancer diagnosis, Wolbert says, “We were in the right spot at the right. The doctor from Children’s is actually now the head of St. Jude’s. He was a wonderful doctor. And at the time, Dr. Adelson was our brain surgeon and he was one of the top pediatric brain surgeons in the United States. So God put us in the right spot at the right time. I was going through divorce and so that’s what brought me back to Brookville and started a new job.”

Back then Wolbert was prepared for the worse. When asked if back then did she ever think they would make it to today. “To be perfectly honest with you no, we were prepared for the worse. We have very strong faith and our faith was pointing us in the direction that he probably wouldn’t survive. And I was prepared for that as much as a parent can be.

“At the time, on Groundhog’s Day, that was the day he told me that Jesus had came to him and talked to him and told him not to be afraid and told me not to be afraid. So we said at that point, ‘Okay, we’re not going to be afraid. We’re going to do what we need to do.”

Garrett at that time was sleeping. 23 hours a day, she said. “The only time that he was awake was when he went to radiation in the morning for half an hour, and radiation in the evening for half an hour. At that time he could not walk he was so weak.”

During breaks in Garret’s radiation treatments, Wolbert would arrange to take him out of the hospital from time to time. They would go to the zoo, go on picnics and go to the Children’s Museum. He still remembers those happy moments during his fight against cancer.

Following the radiation and chemo, Wolbert said they were told they could get back to a “normal” life but noted this was their life – going to treatments. “It was happy; it was kind of scary, because that’s all we knew. Yeah, this is our life, they’re like okay you can go back to normal and I’m like, this is a normal life,” she said.

The doctors would later suggest that the family consider a stem cell transplant for Garrett. “Because his cancer was so aggressive,” she said is the reason they suggested it.

In the meantime, she and her new husband had gone down to Washington, D.C. They were in a group called candle lighters, a support group for parents of children with cancer. There was a rally at Capitol Hill pressing for more research for children’s cancers. During their time in D.C., she met a doctor named Roger Packard and he happened to be a specialist in the type of cancer Garrett had. She would later reach out to him to ask about the stem cell transplant suggestion the doctors were urging her to consider.

Wolbert said she didn’t hear anything back after a couple months and the family had decided to go with the transplant. They were packing to go to Pittsburgh when they got word from Packard. He said he would not recommend the procedure because he didn’t think Garrett would survive because he was still weak from the cancer treatments.

“He said, ‘I would not do that,’ so to me it was the answer from God,” Wolbert said. God is who she credits with the successful outcome for Garrett. “After I let God take control,” Wolbert said is when everything started happening for Garrett. She said, in talking to God, “You take him. He’s yours. I’ll just be his mom.”

She said, “People look at this as a very unfortunate thing or a very bad thing. I think it was a blessing. People look at me like I’m crazy, but whenever you have a chance to increase your faith, yes, it’s a blessing.”

BBQ & BROTHERHOOD: Family cooking tradition expands to fundraisers, competitions

GRAMPIAN — What started out as an annual family reunion tradition has turned into “HBBQ” – Haug, Beef and Bird BBQ Co. – a group of four men who believe “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

Kevin Miknis and his son, J.D. Miknis, Jeff McCartney and Dan Bennett have been going to week-long family reunions at Kevin’s Grampian home for about 13 years, he said, enjoying their love of smoking meats, family and fellowship.

They were always experimenting with foods, Kevin Miknis said. The reunion soon turned into a competition between the men during a “rib cook off,” and was strictly ribs for about four or five years, before they decided to borrow a smoker and cook a whole hog. The men built their first smoker from a 275-gallon fuel tank around eight years ago.

Building the first smoker was a learning experience, he said, and allowed them to make improvements on the second – a larger, 100-percent wood-fired smoker to accommodate more people.

HBBQ’s specialty is brisket, while they also smoke pulled pork, butter-braised chicken and homemade sausage, using local meats such as Palumbo’s Meat Market products. The sauce used 13 years ago is still used today, including honey chipotle, Carolina gold and an east Carolina vinegar base.

HBBQ attended the “8th annual Williams BBQ Cookoff” competition Sept. 27, joining at least 32 teams and entering their brisket and pulled-pork ribs. The team won first place in the blind judge tasting, as well as first place in the people’s choice category and overall grand championship.

Each of the men plays a different role in the group, Kevin Miknis said. McCartney is a welder and was the force behind constructing the smokers, while Kevin contributes woodworking skills. Bennett is the chef and J.D. Miknis handles organizing and public relations.

What makes the smoked meat unique, he says, is the way the men pay attention to detail, including the smokers, food trailer and entire cooking process.

The goal was never to become a business that sells smoked products, he and McCartney said, but to give back through a hobby they enjoy.

The group has cooked for anywhere between 50-300 people, Kevin Miknis said, including a 50th anniversary and graduation parties for friends and family and a fundraiser benefiting The Arc of Jefferson and Clearfield Counties, raising $17,000.

HBBQ has cooked to benefit the United Way, “Project Healing Waters” for disabled veterans and individuals in the community, he said.

The group has received a lot of support, he adds.

“There is nothing like the camaraderie and family aspect of sitting around a smoker,” Kevin Miknis said.

Bennett said HBBQ has also drawn inspiration from different chefs over the years.

“The enjoyment and culture of cooking outside is what got us into this,” he said.

Kevin Miknis and McCartney said they hope to participate in more competitions and improve their much-loved hobby.

“The secret to our success is the four of us have the same passion, but each bring a different strength to the team,” McCartney adds.

HBBQ is participating in a fundriaser for the Brady Township Fire Department. For more information, call (814) 583-7610.