Stories of the Impact of Charitable GivingApr 29, 2019 11:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca
Story by Melissa Mendonca
It wasn’t long after a milestone birthday that Jan Buetler began her journey through breast cancer. “I found this large, hot, red lump the size of a small egg,” she says. She knew it required immediate attention and she had no illusions about what she was facing when she walked through the doors of her doctor’s office. “It was my 60th birthday present from the Lord, I guess,” she says with a laugh.
She and her husband Garry began weekly treks to Van Nuys, where Buetler underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and a protocol she refers to as “extra chemo,” which caused permanent hair loss. “I don’t live close to the LA area,” says the Porterville resident. “It’s a two and- a-half hour drive away. But I wanted to go to the Breast Center.”
That was 16 years ago. Buetler has been cancer-free since her treatments, though she still makes an annual trek to Van Nuys. “I still see the oncologist yearly,” she says, “I have my mammograms yearly.”
While she can joke that her cancer was a birthday gift from the Lord, the journey was as much spiritual as physical, and has caused her to reflect.
“I’m thankful every day, and I don’t forget,” she says. “Whatever God wanted me here for, I hope I’m doing His work. Because I do appreciate my life.”
A mostly retired school nurse – she’s filling in at a local school part-time through the rest of the school year – she’s found meaning in volunteer work through Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA.
“When I got involved I felt I could make a difference,” she says. “These kids need one person that they know will be there for them.” CASAs are matched with a child or siblings in foster care and advocate for them through the court system, writing reports to the judge of their successes and struggles through the system. “That court report is very important, and they are very interested in what I have to say,” she says, emphasizing her role in advocating solely for the children. “We’re not social workers and we’re not foster parents. You only want what’s best for the child and that’s our focus.”
“I think my little guy right now is number 14,” she says, reflecting on her involvement with CASA since signing up in 2006. She’s worked with children in sibling groups as large as six, and is currently supporting a toddler she has witnessed grow from a newborn. She’s enjoyed reading to him, helping him become aware of his surroundings, and supporting his young mother learn to interact with him.
“I have that nursing background,” she says, noting how helpful it is in understanding child development.
In April, Buetler was honored with a Hands on Hero award for Child Advocacy by First Five. As she transitions out of her part-time work at the school, Buetler looks forward to increasing volunteer hours at the Porterville Cancer Center as part of a spiritual ministry. “Since I’ve been through it,” she says, “I’d like to give them encouragement to show that there’s life after cancer.”
Veronica Burns knows the power and importance of a good mentor, and not only for the young. “As an adult I still needed that person to come alongside me,” she says. “I’d fallen through the cracks.” She points to two influential women in her life, her “big” Becky in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program, with whom she was paired as a young woman, and Tami, an attorney, who has been a source of strength and encouragement through significant struggles in adulthood. Burns remains close to both, and appreciates the way she can relate to them now, having moved through addiction and incarceration to a healthier way of living.
“I got distracted when I was in junior high and high school,” Burns says. “I just really fell off course into addiction.” The struggles worsened over time, until eventually Burns found herself pregnant in prison. “I ended up getting in trouble with the law and had to overcome legal struggles and fines and restitution and humiliation,” she says. “I brought humiliation onto my family. They were hard workers. I was ashamed.”
She admits that she may have been viewed as a hopeless case. Thankfully, Tami didn’t see her that way and stepped in to help. “She never left my side,” Burns says. “She was genuine. She never bailed out. She saw so much potential in me that really affected my heart. I knew I could trust her.”
The people at Teen Challenge in Bakersfield also believed in her. There, she says, she found the help that stuck. She was 39 years old. (Despite its name, Teen Challenge serves adults.) “It was the best thing I could have done,” she says. “One year is what it took to be able to replace the bad habits with the good habits. To clear my head. To have that discipline. I didn’t have discipline. I was just a reactive person.”
Now, Burns finds herself in a position to support others as the thrift store manager of Traver Community Assistance Program, a unit of Kingsburg Community Assistance. “It’s actually a ministry,” she says. “We have community with our customers and see if there’s a deeper need we can help with.”
She treasures the opportunity to “be the eyes and ears of a need,” noting the value of others when “they saw the need in me.”
She also dedicates significant time to educating on adoption, having made the painful yet powerful decision to put her son up for adoption while dealing with her addiction in prison. “It was the best but most difficult choice I ever made in life,” she says. She is now in contact with the boy, and regularly speaks with his adoptive mother at foster adoption seminars. “We have a trusting relationship, which means so much,” she says.
Burns also works within her church to support Rescue the Children, a branch of Fresno Rescue Mission, and provides weekly mentorship to teen volunteers at the thrift store. “I’m able to do what Becky did for me when I was a young girl,” she says, her voice filled with awe and pride.
Burns has married and blended a family of five children, including her three and two from her husband. The family recently moved to a farmhouse in Reedley. “It’s a dream,” she says.
“God is just so great in how He uses these broken pieces in my life, these things that used to be so shameful,” she says. “Even if a situation looks like a lost cause, that is so not the case.” •