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Donnie: Challenged by a Life of Love, Loss & Redemption

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Donnie owes his future to Guiding Light, noting: “I don’t know how you would describe an organization that saves your life. It’s a phenomenal place to be if you want the help. If you don’t want the help, it’s like anything else."

/Doug Pancy

Donnie takes a ragged breath and tries to get the words out.

“Well, the first thing that pops into my mind are her eyes. They were so beautiful, green with flecks of gold and brown. And her smile and her laugh; they were so contagious and heart-warming. Those are the pictures I keep of her because I have no photos. Not a one.”

Jan was Donnie’s world. They’d married in 1997. But just shy of 14 years later, she fell ill, with something that never was diagnosed. Donnie wanted her to see a doctor, but it was close to Christmas, and she pushed back: “Let’s wait until after the holidays.”

On New Year’s Eve, the gal he’d known since seventh grade sat on their couch, listless. She drifted off to sleep there. And when he came to check on her around 6 a.m., she was gone.

“There was an autopsy,” says Donnie. “But it offered no idea what she died of.” Then, to compound his grief, his mother died that same November of cancer.

Donnie was born and raised in Three Rivers. He recalls a “good childhood” as the fifth of six children born to a blue-collar couple. When he wanted something, he picked asparagus or strawberries to secure the money. He dropped out of high school, anxious to begin earning a full-time living. He later got his GED.

At 15, Donnie suffered a near-fatal accident when his body became horribly entangled in the power takeoff shaft at the rear of a tractor. The mishap ripped his bib overalls from him, broke his ribs and both legs and left him with sloughed-off skin everywhere. His recovery included four months in the hospital, during which he underwent countless painful skin grafts. “I was a mangled mess,” he says. “And I never really fully recovered. Now, in my 60s, I’m certainly not as spry as I used to be.”

He eventually joined his father and a brother at a company that made milling machines. When his brother passed away from complications of diabetes, it was too much to remain employed there, so Donnie went on the road. He put up bleachers and grandstands for venues all across the U.S. He worked some factory jobs, then settled into mowing fairways and greens at a handful of golf courses, a job he favored over them all.

Unlike a lot of men at Guiding Light who began experimenting with alcohol and drugs in their teens, Donnie didn’t begin drinking until his mid-20s. “It started with a beer or two a week, and as I got older, three or four a night.”

When Jan died, his alcohol use accelerated. By the spring of 2021, he was drinking a fifth or more of vodka daily. He thinks of her – and his late mother – often. “With my wife’s death, and watching my mother wither away, it was just too much for me.” He adds, “A lot of tears along the way.”

He ended up in a rehab facility for a little more than a week in 2021 but relapsed shortly after his release. An acquaintance finally told Donnie about Guiding Light, and Donnie made the phone call that led to his admission in August of last year.

This past February 9, he celebrated six months of sobriety, and now spends much of his time researching employment options. The farm accident limits his options, and he’s been advised to seek a job that won’t run him down. “My dream job would be to work a golf course again, but here in Michigan, that’s a tough one because I really want something that’s full-time,” he says.

Donnie owes his future to Guiding Light, noting: “I don’t know how you would describe an organization that saves your life. It’s a phenomenal place to be if you want the help. If you don’t want the help, it’s like anything else. But if you do your part, it’s for you. But you gotta want it, and they make you jump through hoops to get it, but it’s worth jumping. I know that for a fact.”

Donnie was never closely acquainted with any religion or elements of spirituality. Since arriving at Guiding Light, however, he’s been attending church services on Sundays and prays and meditates every morning. Going to support groups has also helped him develop a sense of a Higher Power.

He does harbor one regret – not working harder to secure and treasure a photo of Jan. “I gave most of them to her mom, and she ended up moving away, and then passing away. I wish I would have saved one, but I didn’t.”

He tries to focus on what remains: “I’m in a good place now and moving forward,” he says. “Guiding Light really did save my life, and I’m not kidding you one bit. I so appreciate all the people here and know that all my thank-yous can never be enough. So I try to show my appreciation by smiling and shaking hands and hugging them. For now, it’s what I can give back.”

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