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Lending a hand Casino employees help East Gull Lake cancer patient

Deb Steiner (left) weeded and cleaned up Shari Grave’s flower garden at Grave’s

EAST GULL LAKE — When you’re battling leukemia, the last thing you have time or energy to worry about is tending to your flower garden or washing the windows. 

Shari Grave knows this all too well. The East Gull Lake mother of two was diagnosed in March with acute promyelocytic leukemia. She had been exhausted last winter, so tired that by late February she found herself napping in her car on her two 15-minute work breaks during her day. Her doctor ordered several blood tests and called her the next day, telling her she had an appointment in one hour at the oncology department.

“When you’re told you have an appointment in the oncology department in an hour, you know what that means,” said Grave. 

She spent March hospitalized at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth undergoing chemotherapy. She’s also undergone two 5-week series of additional chemotherapy treatments at Essentia Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center. 

Since March, Grave has been unable to work as a lead program aide at 

 aBreath of Life Adult Day Service in Brainerd. But she still stops by on days she feels good to play cards and visit with the elderly clients, many who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other health issues. 

When her boss, Breath of Life executive director Bob Schricker, learned that Grand Casino Mille Lacs has a Lend a Hand program that awards a one-day home makeover for someone in need, he immediately nominated Grave, who was selected by a committee out of four finalists. 

On Tuesday, 27 Grand Casino Mille Lacs facilities department employees teamed up to provide much-needed home repairs and maintenance for Grave and her husband, Scott. 

The program, in its seventh year, annually awards a one-day home makeover to individuals who meet criteria based on income, physical limitations, medical issues and other challenges. Grave was selected as the 2011 recipient based on her personal story. 

“It’s just been awesome,” Grave said, as casino employees worked on home improvement projects around her home Tuesday. “I’ve been non-stop smiling since they arrived this morning.”

“This is fabulous,” added her husband, Scott, who helped with the work. “It’s stuff I wanted to get done and couldn’t get it done.”

Volunteers from Grand Casino washed windows, cleaned carpets, split firewood, poured concrete in a patio area, weeded the garden, landscaped around the yard, recycled scrap metal, grounded tree stumps, removed an old tree fort from the yard, fixed a fire pit, replaced fascia and put a seal coat on the driveway. 

The casino also donated $1,000 in Grave’s name to Breath of Life, where she hopes to return to work when she’s able to. She’s worked there for three years. 

“She was a very big part of the service we provide,” Schricker said of Grave. “She has the ability to sense the needs of those who no longer have the ability to express themselves. All the staff really miss Shari. She’s really a planner and played a mean game of cards, developing relationships and engaging our clients. She’s also developed a lot of great relationships with a lot of caregivers. ... For her to be recognized by the community is very healing. It takes the stress level down. Shari is a do-er. She likes to get the job done and not being able to do it has got to be hard on her.”

Lorena Horak, Brainerd, and Robinn Bruckhoff, Aitkin, work in housekeeping at Grand Casino. On Tuesday they were busy cleaning Grave’s windows and screens. 

“It’s just fun,” said Horak. “It’s fun to come and help someone. I’ll do it every year if they let me. It’s a good thing.”

“It amazes you what can be done,” said Bruckhoff.

Ronda Weizenegger, general manager at Grand Casino Mille Lacs, was busy weeding around the Grave’s bushes and plants Tuesday. 

“Her story touched me,” Weizenegger said of Grave. “She’s going through a lot and it’s nice to be out here, it’s refreshing. I appreciate all the work that Grand Casino associates are doing.”

“I think this is great,” added Mike Nickaboine, Grand Casino vice president of facilities, who was busy painting new fascia boards along the roof line. “I love getting out and helping people. I’d been looking forward to this. This is going to be one heck of an improvement here.”

Nor-Son Inc. also provided carpenters to help with the improvements. 

“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Grave. She hopes to spend a lot of time resting on her new patio when she returns from a five-day stay for more chemotherapy treatments at St. Mary’s Hospital next week. “You can see in the teamwork that these people have worked together. They work well together. The changes are happening so fast.”

The casino also received assistance and donations from Brainerd General Rental, Landsburg Nursery, Anderson Brothers, Hirshfield’s, Cemstone, Nor-Son Inc., Jim’s Mille Lacs Disposal, Probuild and the casino’s own facilities, food and beverage, marketing and security departments.

A benefit dinner and silent auction is being planned by family and friends starting at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Pine River American Legion Club to help the Grave family during Shari’s leukemia battle. Silent auction, door prizes and drawings are planned, along with music by Gary Stacken. Donation of auction items will be appreciated. For more information, contact Bunny Witt at (218) 587-4596 or Karyn McLain at (218) 232-1182.

JODIE TWEED may be reached at or 855-5858.