Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sisters share their gratitude & thoughts two weeks after a fatal fire December 18, 2013

Bernadette and Hazel with their Minnie Mouses barely showing in this image. Photo courtesy of Mary DeCann Benson.

Bernadette and Hazel with their Minnie Mouses barely showing in this image. Photo courtesy of Mary DeCann Benson.

I FEEL EMOTIONALLY OVERWHELMED by the sisters’ words. For, in the midst of losing Hazel, 7, and Isaiah, 4, in a December 4 fire that destroyed the younger sister’s house near Lucan in rural southwestern Minnesota, they are thanking those who rallied to help.

Admitting that she is still in a “fog,” Bernadette Thooft says her family—including husband, Matt, and five surviving children—is “extremely grateful for the outpouring of love and support we have been shown and continue to be shown. I do not know if this makes sense or not, but we are overwhelmed by grief and pain and then are getting overwhelmed by love and support. In this horrifying time, God’s glory is shining through and we feel blessed by this.”

Heartfelt, faith-filled words written by a mother enduring a tragedy no parent ever wants to face.

Bernadette’s sister and godmother to Hazel Anne, Mary DeCann Benson of Texas, praises the efforts of volunteer emergency response teams from surrounding communities and then shares an especially touching moment: “That you (responders) found Hazel’s favorite pink Minnie Mouse in the ruins of the fire, cleaned it up, and returned it to Bernadette and Matt speak volumes as to how much of yourselves you give to the members of your communities. We will forever be grateful.”

She is appreciative, too, of family friend, Jennifer Christensen Zollner, who “worked around the clock” as a primary organizer and family liaison, and to the residents of neighboring communities for their generous love, support and prayers. Two days after the fire, the family moved into a fully furnished house in Wabasso. Accounts have been established online and at a Lucan bank to help the Thoofts. As of late Tuesday afternoon, 253 donations of just over $17,000 have been made to the Thooft family’s Giveforward fundraiser.

Mary offers a glimpse into the loving home in which Hazel and Isaiah and their five siblings have been raised. That consoles me, to hear that Bernadette and Matt “live their lives and raise their children by four guiding principles: God, family, community, self, in that order.”

“In a world that so often values the tangible,” Mary continues, “they have taught their children that the real beauty and value of life comes not from what you own, but from what you experience and most importantly, those you experience it with.”

Her sister and family dine together every evening, pray before meals and thank God at the close of each day for their daily blessings.

Then I laugh when Mary shares details of the Thoofts’ Sundays, designated as their “Family Day.” After church, Matt prepares pancakes for the kids, “dirtying way too many dishes” and leaving Bernadette to follow behind grumbling that “Dad needs to learn to clean as you go.”

I can visualize that big happy family gathering for pancakes and then later, as Mary notes, doing something special together. Extended family knows not to call on Sundays because their calls will go unanswered and unreturned until Monday.

Isaiah Thooft. Photo source: Stephens Family Funeral Home.

Isaiah Thooft. Photo source: Stephens Funeral Service.

Bernadette also planned special mother-daughter days with Hazel each month. And after the Thoofts adopted Isaiah, they changed his middle name to Matthew, after his new daddy. It is not lost on me that the name Matthew means “gift from God.”

In the thoughtful insights Mary reveals to me, I am consoled knowing that second grader Hazel and preschooler Isaiah knew Jesus and were embraced by a family that loved them deeply.

“Bernadette and Matt are not perfect parents and they would not appreciate me trying to make them out to be anything more than two people struggling to do their best on a daily basis,” Mary says. “They are good people, suffering a loss that most of us can never come close to understanding and they would be the first to say that they hope the rest of us will never have to.”

FYI: To learn how you can assist the Thooft family and Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen, who was seriously injured after being run over by a fire truck on the scene, please click here.

And to read more of Mary DeCann Benson’s thoughts, please click here and scroll down to the comments section, number 9.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mourning Hazel and Isaiah, siblings who perished in a rural Minnesota house fire December 12, 2013

THE WORDS WRENCH at my heart as I read them. Words of consolation from family and friends attempting to comfort Matt and Bernadette Thooft, who lost two of their children in a house fire on Wednesday, December 4, near Lucan in my native southwestern Minnesota.

Anita Schoniger comments on the Stephens Funeral Service obituary page for the Thooft children: Auntie Nut loves you to the moon and back Miss Hazel Ann and my little Isaiah.

Hazel, 7, and Isaiah, 4, died in the fire.

Beautiful babies…special angels…a happy little boy with a big smile…

A mother who’s lost a child writes: People say time heals all wounds, but honestly in this situation I’ve learned that time doesn’t heal that empty feeling you have in your heart, it just makes each day easier to get out of bed.

Such heartfelt words written by those who knew, or didn’t know, Hazel and Isaiah, their parents and five siblings, Zachary, 11; Augustus, Hazel’s twin; Maxwell and Abigail, both 4; and Beatrice Grace, 2.

On Friday, the lives of Hazel and Isaiah will be remembered and celebrated at funeral services set for 10:30 a.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Wabasso. Visitation is scheduled at the church for 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday and for an hour prior to services Friday.

Hazel Thooft

Hazel Thooft

Reading the obituaries of these two siblings, I smile at the independence of Hazel, who often wore mismatched outfits and several shirts at a time. This St. Anne’s Catholic School second grader liked doing things her own way, embraced art and dancing and singing. She loved school and reading and, it seems to me, simply being among people.

Isaiah Thooft

Isaiah Thooft

Her younger brother Isaiah, likewise, loved people and laughter and possessed a bit of a mischievous streak. You can see that in his wide grin, in the revelation that this Wabasso Public School preschooler liked to play tricks on others. He, too, enjoyed books and several times a week visited the library. A boy after my own heart, appreciating the written word.

Both children, clearly, were outgoing and loved.

I cannot imagine a grief as deep as losing a child.

I take comfort in knowing that the Thooft family possesses a deep faith in God. It is that faith and the support of family, friends and strangers, and of the small communities of southwestern Minnesota, which will carry them through their grief.

Already, the Thoofts have received an outpouring of financial and emotional support via Giveforward accounts set up to assist them. As of early Wednesday evening, 232 donations totaling around $15,000 had been made to the family. First Independent Bank of Lucan and the United Way of Southwest Minnesota are also accepting donations. Click here to learn details about how you can donate.

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JUST A NOTE: The Thoofts own two businesses, Matt’s Frame Repair and The Store (which I blogged about in March), in my hometown of Vesta. That is among the reasons this tragedy touches me personally. According to an update posted on The Store Facebook page yesterday morning, the combination thrift and grocery store which Bernadette ran solo will remain closed until further notice.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo credit: Stephens Funeral Service