Rochester couple honors lost loves by helping other cancer patients, families

The Spehns created foundation to help parents with cancer take care of themselves, children

When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, it affects the entire family. Gina and Michael Spehn know that all too well. Each of them lost their first spouse to cancer.

Gina Spehn's first husband, Matt Kell, died on Christmas Day in 2005. He had been diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma in 2002.

"So we had a three-year journey with the disease and it changes everything about your life," said Gina Spehn. "It's a physical disease and it changes someone's body, it affects their physical body but it has this ripple effect.  It affects your finances, it affects your relationships, and your perspective on life completely changes."

Gina had two boys with Matt, Drew and Sam.

A few months later, Michael Spehn's first wife, Cathy, was diagnosed with cancer.

"My wife had a different experience. She was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and passed away just 17 days later," said Michael Spehn.

Michael Spehn was also on his own, raising his three children, Charlotte, Jack and Danny.

Both widowed, Gina and Michael were brought together by their loss. They fell in love and started a new life together.

Together they chronicled their story in the book, "The Color of Rain."


The Spehns say they received so much support from their family, friends and the community while their spouses were sick with cancer, but they know that's not the case for every family facing the terrible disease.

In 2007, they created the New Day Foundation for Families with the focus on helping young families affected by cancer.

"We decided that as part of carrying forward Matt and Cathy's legacies we wanted to walk along side these families and let them know, number one, they're not alone, number two, that if we can fill in some of their most urgent needs, then that's what we want to do," said Michael Spehn.

The New Day Foundation for Families has several programs to help cancer patients and their families.

"We understand that there's this extra stress on you as a parent when you have these little kids at home and you just want to keep their world normal, and keep them going to their activities and make sure they're home life isn't disrupted," said Gina Spehn.  "You just want to keep them on solid ground and we felt that was our calling, was to serve those families."

Family First helps families who have children under 18 in the home. They focus on the physical, emotional and financial challenges they could be facing. The foundation helps pay mortgages, utilities, car payments, groceries or gas, camps for kids, child care, provides books or journals, supplies or other resources the families might need.

The Car Pack program gives families basic necessities such as fuel or grocery cards, resources including for counseling or camps and comfort items like stuff animals or gifts for children.

"Sometimes its just as simple as helping someone get back and fourth to treatment," said Michael Spehn. "We've had single moms for instance who have little children at home and they can't afford daycare while they go to chemo therapy treatments and they have treatable cancers that could be put into remission or even cured but they don't continue their treatment because they can't afford a few hundred dollars a month for daycare."

The Spehns say they have seen a lot of single parents battling cancer and have created a Single Parent program to help them. Like the Families First program, services can include helping with mortgages, rent, children care, clothing, paying for school activities, cleaning services and so much more.

Karen Lynn Brown was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma two years ago. "It was absolutely devastating," she said. Her cancer kept her from working as a substitute teacher, her family lost their home and had to move in with her sister. Brown and her two daughters are together, but she has to live apart from her husband for now.


"Emotionally and mentally, it was so draining just thinking about the possibilities of what could go wrong," said Brown.

Brown said just functioning daily, preparing meals, getting her daughter to school, helping her with her homework and staying positive for her children was hard.  She wanted to set a good example for her children so they would know she would be OK.

When Brown's mini van broke down earlier this year, she could not afford to fix it. She asked the New Day Foundation for Families for help. The foundation helped her get a new mini van so she could drive her daughter to school. "It was mind-blowing these people were willing to do so much for me and don't know me. It was just so encouraging," she said.

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Brown is nearly done with her chemotherapy treatments and on a path to a full remission.

"I would not be in the shape that I am right now if not for New Day," said Brown.

Parents like Brown are who the Spehns aim to help every day.

"It's taking this burden off of these families that I think is, it just brings them to tears and they're so grateful," said Gina Spehn.  "We're only doing it for a matter of sometimes only a month, sometimes three to six months at a time, it depends on the family and the need, but every family, no matter what it is we're able to do for them, it's just what they need at that time and it sustains them just long enough to get through the hardest part and kind of figure out where they're going to go next.

Michael Spehn said what they provide can be a stress relief for these families. However, he acknowledges it can be hard to ask for help or just to let people help you.

"I speak to a lot of men and,  I went through it myself.  Men in particular, dads, husbands, we try and go it alone.  We try to circle our own wagons and say to the world 'Stay out,'" said Michael Spehn. "The key for me was to open my heart and open my arms a little bit and say, 'I'm going to let people help me, I'm going to let people walk with me and I'm going to let my faith transform my life.'"

The Spehns continuously raise funds to provide services to these families. Their latest event is Saturday -- Mickey York's Game Day Charity Jam. It will be held at Cheli's Bar in downtown Detroit.

Participants will watch the Detroit Tigers take on the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park and enjoy pregame festivities at the bar.

For more information, click here.

For more information on the New Day Foundation for Families, click here.