RICHMOND – Cancer is terrifying.
It invades. It weakens. Sometimes, it kills.
In the past 6 months, three employees at the Watlow Electric Manufacturing Company in Richmond have been given the same shattering prognosis.
Sue Jozapaitis: endometrial cancer.
Karen Kirk: brain tumor.
Jennifer Hinzpeter: watching her two-year-old son, Liam, fight for his life against T-cell acute lymphoid leukemia.
Although each battle is private, fellow employees at Watlow wanted each woman to know she doesn't have to face the battle alone.
From Monday, June 13 through Friday, June 17, the focus of 280 employees at the Richmond plant was to support Jozapaitis, Kirk and Hinzpeter.
“At the end of the day, the people you work with are your family – your work family,” said Dan Todryk, a human resources manager for Watlow.
On Monday, there was a bake sale. On Tuesday, a hot dog luncheon. And all week, the common lounge area at Watlow brimmed with silent auction and raffle items to be dispersed at the end of the week. The goal was to raise $3,000. As of Friday afternoon, they had raised almost $9,000.
For those who couldn't donate money, an opportunity to donate vacation days was made available.
“It's less about the money and more about appreciation and support for your fellow team members,” Todryk said.
“These days, both the company and employees are penny pinching, so it is really wonderful to see everyone giving their time, or money or talents to help their fellow team member in need,” he said.
The support overwhelmed Jozapaitis, Kirk and Hinzpeter.
“I expected something, but not like what's happening,” a teary-eyed Jozapaitis said during Tuesday's luncheon. “I saw them emptying the bake sale jar and I saw a hundred dollar bill and twenties.” Her voice trailed off.
Jozapaitis, an administrative coordinator for human resources, has worked for Watlow for 29 years. The 65-year-old Twin Lakes resident with the big friendly smile is the first person most of her co-workers met the day they started at the company.
“She always has a smile or a laugh for everyone,” said Donna Kruzan, who also works in human resources. “Her laughter echos through rooms!”
Kruzan, of Twin Lakes, has worked with Jozapaitis for more than 20 years.
“We are just trying to give to her what she always gave to everyone else. Everyone is trying to help the helper. Now it's our turn to make her smile,” Kruzan said.
Whether those hundreds of Watlow employees connected with Jozapaitis in human resources, Kirk on the production floor or Hinzpeter in customer service, it was clear from the turnout that they all wanted the women to feel supported.
And they did.
“It's good to know people care. Especially when you're in the situations that we are in,” Kirk said as she visited the fundraising events with her daughters Kayla and Savannah Kirk.
Kirk, 42, started with Watlow in 2013. Described as friendly, warm and passionate by her co-workers, she had to take a leave of absence in October when doctors discovered a brain tumor near her cerebellum.
After surgery, Kirk returned to work, but a few weeks ago doctors found another tumor. With a diagnosis of Metastatic Differentiaed Carcinoma, Kirk again had to leave her station at Watlow to undergo intense biotherapy.
Her deep brown eyes misted with emotion several times during her visit.
“You build friendships at work that go beyond work,” she said. “It's such a good feeling to know the people you work with care. They understand when you need support or when you are having a day when you just fall apart,” she said.
Jozapaitis agreed. In the weeks leading up to the fundraising, she has been bolstered by her teammates in the form of long stem roses, homemade tamales and help going down the stairs when she is too drained from chemotherapy to make it on her own.
Although Kirk, Hinzpeter and Jozapaitis are beneficiaries this week, they are giving something back to their team, too.
“They see us ... our struggles … our strength, and I think we inspire them, too,” Kirk said.
Although the fundraising event at Watlow ended Friday, coworker support won't stop.
For information on how to join the effort to support the Watlow team members with a donation or letter of encouragement, use the following:
Susan Jozapaitis, PO Box 834, Twin Lakes, WI 53181
Karen Kirk care of Kayla Kirk, 40312 102nd St, Genoa City, WI 53128 or the Go Fund Me webpage: Karen Kirk Medical Fund.
Jennifer Hinzpeter could not be reached for comment on this story, however her co-workers created a Go Fund Me web page for her: Liam's Journey (Pell Lake, WI). The goal on the site is to raise $7,000 to help cover the costs associated with the toddler's treatment.