Mother battling stage three cancer awarded United Way funds

Published 9:39 am Friday, March 15, 2019

STEVENSVILLE — When Shannon O’Brien, 49, of Stevensville, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in November, she quickly discovered that her illness was not the only battle she would face.

“I thought, ‘I have cancer. I will go to chemotherapy and come back to work,’” O’Brien said. “I was not prepared.”

The treatment, however, made O’Brien so sick that she had to take a temporary break from her job as a clinical case manager nurse at the University of Notre Dame.

While she had to put her life on pause, her bills continued to pile up. She began to fall further behind on her property taxes and soon was in jeopardy of losing her home to foreclosure.

O’Brien grew up in Watervliet and graduated from Lake Michigan College with a nursing degree. She is a single mother of five, including a set of 15-year-old triplets. Two of her children are grown, and she has three grandchildren. 

O’Brien was out of options when she visited Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski to ask about setting up a payment plan to avoid foreclosure on her home. When Witkowski heard her situation, he felt she was an ideal recipient of the Hopeful Home Fund.

As a result, O’Brien received $4,900 from the Hopeful Home Fund earlier this month. The funds will help her make significant progress on repayments and is enough to keep her from losing her home of seven years.   

The Hopeful Home Fund is a collaboration between the Berrien County treasurer and United Way of Southwest Michigan. The funds are intended to help people with no other means pay off their taxes so that they do not lose their home to foreclosure.

When O’Brien learned she was a recipient, she was overwhelmed with gratitude for her Berrien County community.

“I was already distressed about having the cancer diagnosis and other financial issues that had come up with the expense of the cancer,” O’Brien. “To try to focus on healing, while worrying about bills and if you are going to lose your house and you have kids in high school is overwhelming stress. I don’t even have words to describe the relief [the Hopeful Home Fund] gave me.”

O’Brien started struggling to make ends meet about a year before her cancer diagnosis when two major operations — one to repair her back and the other to remove her ovaries — put her out of work temporarily.

“It snowballed a bit, and then I got this cancer diagnosis,” O’Brien said.

On Nov. 16, O’Brien was diagnosed with stage three cancer. The news was a total shock.

“I was healthy,” she said. “I was a runner, and I don’t drink or smoke.”

The cancer has since metastasized to both her breasts and lymph nodes. O’Brien said she faces a long road of recovery ahead including more chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation.

O’Brien said she hopes to be well enough to be able to return to her job at Notre Dame in April.

The Hopeful Home Fund was initiated last year when Niles resident Mildred Gray, 88, walked 1.2 miles to the Berrien County Courthouse in Niles to set up a payment plan to save her house. Gray’s story was picked up by a local media source and three people offered to pay her taxes.

Her plight inspired Witkowski to work with United Way of Southwest Michigan to set up a fund that could benefit homeowners facing foreclosure, who have not had options for paying off their taxes. Witkowski said the initiative was created with people like O’Brien in mind. 

“The goal is to help people that are in a situation like this,” Witkowski said. “This is by far the most desperate situation I have seen come across this year.”

Witkowski encouraged people to support the Hopeful Home Fund. He emphasized that a donation is tax deductible and stays in the local community to help residents in need.

People can donate by contacting United Way of Southwest Michigan at (269) 982-1700 and specifying that they would like to donate to the Hopeful Home Fund.

“When people donate locally, in their own communities, everyone can and help and you see the results immediately,” O’Brien said. “I just want people to understand that it does matter. It does count when someone helps their community.”

For O’Brien, the donation not only gave her hope but the tools she needed to channel everything she has into getting well.

“I had gotten pretty down during this treatment. It is pretty scary,” O’Brien said. “And then I thought, ‘people I don’t even know are fighting for me and praying for me. I better start fighting like hell.’ When I’m better, I will be the first one to step up and help other people.”