WHEATON – There are many ways to cope with the death of a loved one.
For Kymberly Kogelschatz-Byrnes, her father’s passing prompted her to go on a national tour of volunteer work, including a stop in his hometown of Wheaton.
Gerald Kogelschatz died last month after struggling with dementia and other health issues since 2005. While he moved around a lot, Kymberly said, he grew up in Wheaton and graduated from Wheaton Central High School. She said her father often told her family stories about Wheaton and about being on the high school swim team with Jim and John Belushi.
“My parents really always wanted to move to Wheaton when we lived in Bolingbrook,” she said. “We used to come here all the time. Dad’s friends were all around here. It was my mom’s favorite place in the world.”
Kymberly and her husband had been taking care of Gerald for the last eight years and living with him in New York for the past four. Though his passing wasn’t completely unexpected, his death was still jarring, she said. She tried to go back to work, but after a few weeks, she found herself wanting do something to honor him.
She decided on a cross-country volunteer tour hitting all the towns that had meant something to her father during his life. She has already taken the pickup truck he left her to Indiana to visit her brother and the University of Notre Dame, home of his favorite college team.
While she was there, Kymberly spent time at a homeless shelter. After a fire destroyed her family’s home in 1998, Gerald and her youngest sister spent a month living in other people’s houses and out of their car.
Kymberly’s second stop was Wheaton’s Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans, which she chose because her father served in Vietnam. She visited the shelter Dec. 6.
“All of the people you see on the street , they could have been my dad,” Kymberly said. “If I didn’t have the means to help him, that would have been him. The homeless community is your neighbor, your dad, your brother – someone who fell on hard times.”
Though she has visits planned in Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., Biloxi, Miss., New Orleans, Arkansas and San Antonio, she said her trip to Wheaton was what she was looking forward to the most.
“This place was particularly special to me,” she said. “It’s in my dad’s hometown and it’s for veterans. My dad could have ended up in a place like this. Or worse, not ended up in a place like this.”
She said she hopes to encourage people to volunteer in their communities, something that shelter case aide Javon Harris said is always needed.
“We’ve been here awhile, but we’re growing, and it’s all based on volunteers,” she said. “It’s greatly needed and it means a lot to the guys that come in here, knowing that there’s help out there and there’s people that care about what they’ve sacrificed and what they’re going through.”
Harris said that the shelter gets a lot of volunteers because of their veteran mission, but that Kymberly’s journey was a special one.
“It’s amazing what one person can do for so many others. One person can eventually grow into hundreds of people,” Harris said.
Kymberly Kogelschatz-Byrnes’ trip is funded by donations from friends, family and strangers.
On the web
For more information about the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans, visit www.helpaveteran.org.