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Cottage Grove couple carries on kindness after cancer battle

Karen Wenzel attaches logos to a Coats of Kindness drop box at Cottage Grove City Hall, one of 15 locations where people can donate new or gently used winter jackets and coats. Wenzel said she would like to see the non-profit effort expand in future years and involve area youth. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente1 / 2
Eric Wenzel assembles a Coats of Kindness collection box. His family started the winter coat collection drive after his fight with colon cancer. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 2

Eric and Karen Wenzel were surrounded by support of family and friends during a prolonged maedical fight, and are carrying forward that kindness by keeping strangers warm.

The Wenzels are in their second year of leading Coats of Kindness, an effort to collect donated winter coats and jackets for customers of Stone Soup Thrift Store and others who need outerwear as the cold winter weather sets in.

On a recent day, the Wenzels set up a drop box at Cottage Grove City Hall, one of more than a dozen Coats of Kindness locations in south Washington County and around the Twin Cities.

"It grows by the day," Eric Wenzel said of the coat effort as he carried the collection box with a limp in his step.

That limp was caused by the Cottage Grove man's bout with cancer, a battle that nearly killed him but also later inspired his family to start Coats of Kindness.

'It got worse'

In 2008, Wenzel was diagnosed with colon cancer. On his 40th birthday, he had surgery to remove a portion of his colon. But about a year after he finished chemotherapy, he started having back pain.

"It got worse really fast," his wife said of the escalating pain.

Tests revealed that the cancer had returned. A tumor that had started to grow in the area of the previous surgery had spread to his spine - leaving him with low odds of surviving.

The Wenzels went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where doctors initially declined to consider treating Eric because they figured the cancer was inoperable, and told the couple to just go home because nothing could be done, Karen recalled.

"We said, 'We're not leaving,'" she said.

A young surgeon took Eric's case and started him on chemotherapy and radiation.

"As the weeks progressed, he just got sicker and sicker," Karen said of her husband, who lost 90 pounds in six weeks.

A dangerous surgery was planned, but would take place two months later. In the meantime, the Wenzels took their children for a family trip to Mexico, not knowing Eric's fate. Karen remembered the family crying together on the final day of their trip, not wanting to return home.

In February of 2010, Wenzel underwent a two-stage surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. His chances of recovery were not good. The 30-hour procedure, which involved major internal surgery, had only been attempted 48 times. Half of the patients had died in surgery, Karen said. Even if he survived, doctors did not expect Eric to ever walk again.

The former college football player came out of surgery and endured a long rehabilitation process.

"It was a huge rehab," Karen said.

Help from others

During a 39-month period when Eric was fighting cancer, the amount of time he spent working at his Wenzel Financial Services in Cottage Grove amounted to 13 weeks.

In that time, the Wenzels experienced an outpouring of support from friends and family, who helped with meals, errands and getting their children to and from school and events.

"Friends and family came out of the woodwork," Karen Wenzel said.

The family faced an additional challenge when son Dustin, now 27, was seriously injured in a car crash on 80th Street. He was hospitalized for three months just as Eric was recovering from his cancer fight.

A challenge at the Wenzels' All Saints Lutheran Church in the fall of 2010 prompted them to start the non-profit Coats of Kindness. Karen was at church with her two young kids when congregants were offered $50 to do something to help others. They took the offer.

The Wenzels decided they would use the money to start a coat collection. They used the money to purchase three drop boxes. During the holiday season and into early this year, they received 450 donated coats, all of which went to Stone Soup in St. Paul Park.

With help from friends and acquaintances, they expanded the program this year to at least 15 drop boxes. Someone designed a logo for them. Someone else offered to help develop a presence on Facebook and the Internet.

Eric went to school with Bob Warner of Warners' Stellian, who provided the cardboard appliance boxes for coat collection.

The Wenzels decided to paint the boxes bright blue.

"That was a big argument in the house," Karen joked.

The family is in agreement in working to grow the project. Karen said she would like to see many more collection boxes next year, including in local schools, and more youth involvement in Coats of Kindness.

"I'd like to see thousands of coats," she said. "Hopefully every year we can see it expanding."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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