Julia Lollar says she doesn’t know what she would have done without the helping hand she found at Stepping Stones. The Menomonie woman was committed to taking full-time care of her youngest sister whose body was ravaged with cancer, but the pair found themselves needing to find a new place to live.

In 2016, her sister, Krissy, asked Julia if she would take care of her. At that point, Krissy had been battling cancer for many years. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, the disease had returned twice. Following chemotherapy and a lumpectomy, her breast was removed in 2015. But by that time, the disease had spread into her lungs, bloodstream, brain, stomach, liver and spine.

It’s not surprising that Krissy turned to Julia for help. From the day she was born until she turned 8, Krissy called her big sister “Mom”, underscoring the special bond the two shared.

“She was living in a trailer that was infested with roaches,” Julia said, describing the horrors she found in her sister’s home near Rockford, Illinois. “She was on so much narcotic – morphine, dilaudid pump, fentanyl patches … a contraption hooked up to her skin with a shunt in it. Already she was having hallucinations and to have real bugs crawling on her was making her crazy.”

Here and there

Thanks to the generosity of Julia’s youngest daughter and her husband, both women were given a room to share in their home south of Menomonie in October 2016. In addition to tending to Krissy’s needs, Julia also took care of the couple’s two children in lieu of rent since both women depended on Krissy’s monthly Social Security check to make ends meet.

Her oldest granddaughter was seven when her grandmother and aunt arrived. “It was a hell of an experience for her to watch Krissy deteriorate,” Julia recalled. “Her cancer was bad when she got here – and it got worse from there.”

The family made the best of a difficult situation. But by 2018, the couple’s resources were stretched to the limit. Expecting their third child, it was clear that they needed Julia and Krissy to find somewhere else to live.

Not knowing where to begin to find a new home, Julia called Stepping Stones and talked with Shelter Coordinator Heidi Hooten as spring was coming to an end: “I told her my situation … [that] we were about to be homeless [and] we don’t have any real money to work with.”

Within two weeks, Julia and Krissy found themselves in a snug two-bedroom apartment at Stepping Stones’ shelter on South Broadway, unlike anything they ever expected.

“I had horrible visions of my sister dying in a homeless shelter. We come from Chicago, so homeless shelters are not fully furnished little homes,” Julia said. “We cried the moment we got in there, we were so tickled.”

Family circle

Julia and Krissy were the bookends in a family of four. With their siblings, Patrick, now deceased, and Kim, just a year older than Krissy, they grew up on a dead-end street in the Chicago suburb of Cicero.

Julia’s first bed was the crib that stood in the living room of the grandmother who raised her, while her mother worked as a waitress, bartender and go-go dancer and lived in a camper in the yard. Julia describes her as “a very funny, happy, healthy, sexy woman – and she wanted to do anything but raise kids. She was not June Cleaver … and we were not the Brady Bunch!”

When her mother started having other children, the family had to get their own place which turned out to be on the same street two blocks away from her parents’ home.

“She was not your classic idea of what a mother is – absent a lot, but she was fun,” Julia said. “Every Saturday, she took us to the theater to see whatever movie was playing … and then to the only curly slide park in the county. But we hardly ever saw her after that.

“We didn’t have her, but we had Grandma just down the street,” she added. “We didn’t have everything that we wanted, but we didn’t need for much.”

Their mother died of cancer a week after she turned 42. Julia was 22, Patrick was 19 and Krissy and Kim were 14 and 15.

North from Chicago

Julia moved to Menomonie in 1993 when she came to visit a cousin: “It’s just beautiful up here compared with the asphalt jungle of Chicago.”

In 2012, however, she found herself living instead as a fugitive for 18 months in Texas, on the run after being convicted of her fifth OWI in Wisconsin. After taking her last drink on Jan. 3, 2014, she was arrested and found a new “home” in a Texas prison where she served three years of a seven-year sentence for drunk driving: “I had no accidents, no victim. I wasn’t an aggravated case – but I was a multiple [offender] – I had five in Wisconsin … and one in Texas. And they said, “That’s enough, lady!”

While she said it was the worst experience of her life, Julia admitted that her time in prison was truly life changing. “I’d been battling for 34 years, but could not get sober. I was the most unhappy person.”

In a strange twist of fate, the five-year anniversary of her sobriety coincided almost to the minute with the day and time Krissy died on Jan. 3, 2019. “I couldn’t have done any of this with my sister if I were still drinking, if I hadn’t gone through the prison system,” Julia reflected. “I hadn’t lost enough.”

Not long after Julia and Krissy moved into the Stepping Stones’ shelter, all three sisters were reunited under the same roof. Also faced with the dilemma of nowhere to go last summer – and with the help of Julia’s oldest daughter, Kim and her 15-year-old son moved out of the hotel they were living in and into the shelter apartment next door to Julia and Krissy.

What goes around…

Julia said the timing couldn’t have been more ideal. “Kim had a car accident 26 years ago and broke her neck,” Julia explained. “She’s got some challenges and handicap, but she was so loving and touching with Krissy. … When she came over, I could sleep and she could tend to Krissy’s needs.”

With Stepping Stones’ help, it wasn’t long before Krissy and Julia found permanent housing not far from the shelter: “I’ll never forget that day. I got a text [from Heidi Hooten] saying, ‘You’ve got an apartment! Here’s your address.’ … It was a good day.”

On another good day a short time later, Kim and her son moved in to their own home in the same apartment complex. None of the sisters had much more than their clothes and a few boxes of memorabilia. They were thrilled with the treasures they found at United Way’s C-3 Center next to Stepping Stones.

“They completely furnished our home,” Julia said. “I slept on the couch. Krissy’s equipment took up the whole bedroom. … I was never really more than five feet from her.”

Julia credits the help she received from Stepping Stones and other organizations like United Way, AA, and her church. “The responsibility that the community took on by taking us on … I can never pay back, not monetarily anyways. It takes a lot to house people!”

A good ending

Although she can’t drive, Kim and her son’s timely help and proximity proved invaluable, allowing Julia to leave Krissy so she could run errands. “Before Krissy got sick, she was Kim’s caregiver,” Julia said. “She had a life with her man in another town, but every two weeks she came and stayed two weeks with Kim and [her son]. … So Krissy pretty much helped raise him.”

There wasn’t a learning curve for Julia when it came to the job of caring for Krissy in the waning days of her life. She worked for Visiting Angels in the mid-2000s, living with people during their last stages of life, and for Care Partners in 2011 and 2013.

But about Krissy’s demise, she said, “This has got to be the worst death I have ever experienced – and I’ve seen a lot. … I was watching her leave me and watching her suffer so badly. … I can’t say just how unfair I felt it was.”

A team from Heartland Hospice of Eau Claire did their best to make Krissy’s death at home as comfortable as possible. “We did the best we could to keep her home … surrounded by everybody who loved her,” Julia said. “Her pain is finally over. …It was an amazing experience.”

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Barbara Lyon is the Development and Communications Specialist for Stepping Stones of Dunn County. She can be reached at 715-235-2920, ext. 5 or development@steppingstonesdc.org.

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