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'I finally get to give back'

Kristine Hartsell, now an intern working at Grace Place, is a former Grace Place resident and cancer survivor.

Kristine Hartsell is one of the first to admit she's had a lot of trouble in her life, but she also said she wouldn't change a moment of it.

"I wouldn't be who I was now if I went back and changed anything," Hartsell said.

Hartsell is now completing an internship at Grace Place, but for one month in 2004 she was a resident.

Hartsell was just 21 when she moved to Somerset and, after a falling-out with her roommate, found herself in need of a place to stay. Hartsell, originally from South Dakota, didn't even have enough money to drive back home. She said she heard about Grace Place from a coworker. Hartsell said her first night in Grace Place helped her find hope.

"I was probably thinking that I was glad that I was there," Hartsell said, "because the way that they talked to me about everything, it made me feel like I was going to be able to be on my feet soon."

Although Hartsell was in Grace Place for only one month, she said she learned life lessons she still carries with her. She said she learned how to manage a budget during her month-long stay at Grace Place.

"A lot of 21-year-olds don't really realize how easy it is to have their own place and stay above with their own bills and everything," Hartsell said. "If they just get into a place like Grace Place, they would find out that they can do it themselves and have a stable life on their own."

Hartsell found an apartment after a month of living at Grace Place, but her troubles were far from over.

When Hartsell was 22, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. She said the disease has a 95 percent remission rate, but for some reason it was more difficult for her to fight the disease.

"Usually people do six or nine treatments and get put back into remission," Hartsell said.

Hartsell's battle with cancer lasted approximately five years.

Hartsell did chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The chemotherapy made her feel so sick and tired all the time, she was unable to work. She said she had to ask Grace Place for help a few times.

She said she was receiving Social Security money each month, but it wasn't very much. Hartsell said she received a great deal of support from her family, friends, her boyfriend and his family as well as her home town in South Dakota, which raised $3,000 for Hartsell through a fundraiser.

Even with all of this support, Hartsell said there were still a few times she had to ask Grace Place for a gas voucher so she could get to a doctor's appointment.

"Whenever I would go there and ask for a gas voucher, they were always more than happy to do it for me," Hartsell said.

In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, Hartsell had two stem cell transplants. Hartsell's first transplant was a transplant of her own stem cells. It did not work. The second transplant, Hartsell said, was umbilical cord stem cells, and it worked.

"I was to the point where I wanted to try anything," Hartsell said. "I just wanted to be able to live a little longer."

Umbilical stem cells are removed from the umbilical cord immediately after a baby is born and preserved for later use.

"If you're going to have a kid, if you know anybody that's pregnant, preserve the (umbilical cord) blood for your own use or donate it," Hartsell said, "because there's always somebody that needs a stem cell transplant."

Hartsell said she got the news she was cancer-free in February of 2009. She said one of her good friends had taken her to the doctor's office.

"He told me the good news and I got out of there and walked into the waiting room and smiled at her," Hartsell said. "We didn't even say anything; she just got up and hugged me."

Since she got her second chance, Hartsell said she decided to go change careers so she could help others and share her experience with them.

Hartsell is now working on her associate's degree in human services at Rasmussen College. She hopes to graduate later this month. She said she chose to do an internship at Grace Place because she wanted to start giving back to a place that had given her so much.

"I would like to assist and work closely with individuals in crisis and help them to obtain a higher quality of life in the field of human services," Hartsell said.

The advice Hartsell said she would most like to share with others is never to take anything for granted.

"Just worry about what's really important," Hartsell said, "Don't worry about the small things that people think are so important these days."

Hartsell is helping coordinate the Love Baskets Holiday Party for Grace Place. Love Baskets provides Christmas gifts and food for Christmas dinner for needy families in the New Richmond and Somerset school districts, according to Kay Brooks, Love Baskets coordinator. Brooks said Love Baskets is currently collecting gifts through Toys for Tots boxes at various locations in New Richmond and Somerset as well as through their post office box (P.O. Box 142, New Richmond, Wis. 54017).

The Holiday Party is where the families who have signed up to receive gifts will collect their presents. It will be on Sunday, Dec. 16, at Somerset Middle School from 1 - 4 p.m.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(715) 426-1048