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1 Year After Devastating Storm, A Lodge Plants New Seeds

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – A retreat for grieving families is finding its own new beginning.

The weekend of July 1, 2011, brought devastating straight line winds that destroyed trees for acres near Danbury, Wis., and took out much of the property at Faith’s Lodge, which is about two hours north of the metro.

Scars still remain nine months later, but families returned Saturday to restore hope to the healing place. Many families go to Faith Lodge to deal with the grief of losing a child.

The nonprofit’s mission is to “provide a place where parents and families facing the serious illness or death of a child can retreat to reflect on the past, renew strength for the present, and build hope for the future.”

Kari Elias, of Plymouth, said the lodge’s story of recovery is symbolic.

“Although we see a lot of devastation here, it’s sort of symbolic of the hope you can find here,” she said. “Over the years, we are going to see this place with trees that become more beautiful.”

She and her husband, David, find serenity at the lodge. It helps them keep the memory of their son, Brandon, who died in 2006 after he was born with a rare genetic condition.

“He survived for two-and-a-half months, and we were really fortunate because we were able to love that little boy,” Kari Elias said. “We cherished the time we were given with him.”

But for many families who visit the lodge, last summer’s storms unearthed grief all over again. About 70 acres of the property sustained damage.

Curt Peterson, the lodge’s executive director, said the scarred forest reminds people of their own scars.

“It’s hard because it’s another reminder of hurt,” he said. “So we need to take that and turn it into a positive.”

When parents returned Saturday, they replanted more than 80 trees in a spirit of renewal and remembrance. A year later, small saplings are beginning to fill in what was once a canopy of large trees.

“At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if there is trees or not, it’s the love and support you get here to take you through the journey of grief and finding out what life will become,” Kari Elias said.

Melissa and Rich Parkos were among 150 people who planted a tree. The Blaine couple says they’ve learned to root themselves in a new landscape, creating memories for RJ, the child they knew only for a few moments.

“We actually lived in China when he was born,” Melissa Parkos said. “He was born at 31 weeks, he was stillborn. For us it was really hard, because we didn’t have any family.”

The couple returned home to Minnesota and found Faith’s Lodge in October of 2010.

“Unfortunately, God needed [RJ] more than we did,” Melissa Parkos said. “We cling on to everything we can, because it always brings really good memories for us.”

Rich Parkos said the lodge lets you feel like you’re not alone.

“You walk away feeling normal,” he said.

The Parkos spelled out RJ’s name in rocks beneath a small elm tree Saturday.

“We won’t forget where it’s planted,” Rich Parkos said.

Faith’s Lodge will celebrate its fifth anniversary at its Northwoods Wisconsin lodge this summer. The lodge is looking for more volunteers and donations to help with the clean up, which could take years.

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