With a body ravaged by Stage 4 cancer, Phil Zielke would drag himself off the couch, descend a flight of stairs step by exhausting step, trudge to the front door and – finally, weakly – reach the mailbox.
“Even if it wiped me out for the rest of the day, I would do it. I had to do it,” Phil says.
The reason why such a sick young man would go to those lengths to check the mail is a part of the foundation for the Lutheran Recognized Service Organization he would go on to create. Every week – even months after his treatment journey began and many others’ support had fallen away – there would be a card from a well-wisher who had dedicated his or her time to making sure Phil never felt alone.
“Every single time someone wrote they were praying for me and they had a Bible verse in the card, it always seemed to be the exact Bible verse that I needed at the exact moment,” says Phil, winner of the 2017 Concordia Plan Services Spirit of Service Award.
CPS ‘Meant Everything to Me’
Phil Zielke would beat cancer – not once, but twice – and go on to found Phil’s Friends, an organization whose mission is to bring Christ-centered support and hope to those affected by cancer.
It’s an organization Phil says wouldn’t be around had Concordia Plan Services not been there for him.
“Concordia Plan Services meant everything to me. I really feel like God used Concordia Plans to save my life,” he says.
Exactly why CPS’s health plan was so important to Phil is clear, says his assistant, Lauren Coleman.
“It helped him have the ability to get a second opinion, get the best treatment possible for his cancer. And when he started Phil’s Friends, he said. ‘This is the insurance I want to have for my people who work for me,’” says Lauren, who has benefited from the Concordia Health Plan herself after a recent diagnosis.
Personalized Care Packages
On a typical afternoon or evening, volunteers gather to assemble care packages and color cards – the centerpieces of what Phil’s Friends is all about. Some of these volunteers are cancer survivors, some are spouses of those who fought the disease before going to be with God, and some are simply those who believe in the organization’s mission and its soft-spoken, down-to-earth founder.
Each box is decorated with hand-colored themes – a Green Bay Packers box for a Cheesehead, a cooking-themed box for an amateur chef, a Frozen box for a Disney-loving little girl. Into each goes items Phil himself either relied on or wished he had at his side when he was fighting his battles.
A warm blanket for the long hours of chemotherapy in cold, sterile treatment rooms. A knitted hat to keep the heat in on a newly bald head. A special oral rinse to deal with the mouth sores chemotherapy creates. A journal to chronicle the lows and even more unimaginable lows. A Bible to keep patients connected to God on those dark days of despair. All these and more are packed in boxes and sent out to help brighten the days of those in the fight of their lives.
“When you first get (a care package), you don’t realize how important the things in there are,” said Dave Johnson, who battled and beat male breast cancer with Phil’s Friends cheering him on. “It’s when you’re going through your journey that you realize why they’re in there, why Phil put them in there in the first place.”
Some of these boxes are hand-delivered. Phil’s Friends has agreements with three Chicago-area hospitals to allow him and the organization’s volunteers to bring the care packages to patients on the fields of their battleground. Zielke’s goal is to reach similar agreements with the top 50 cancer centers nationwide, a goal he believes is attainable for one simple reason.
“The way we’re loving people is the way that Jesus wants us to, and it is causing patient satisfaction scores to rise,” Phil says. “Hospitals like to hear that.”
The boxes not delivered personally are mailed. Recipients are nominated by loved ones who fill out a simple form at PhilsFriends.org. Where once the organizations mailed out 500 care packages a year, it now is sending out more than 500 a month.
Caring Cards Continue
But the support doesn’t end with the delivery of the care package. Remember that cancer-stricken young man struggling to get to the mailbox each day? Phil does. And from that comes the Cards of Hope part of Phil’s Friends. Those who receive care packages can request cards to be sent to them and/or their caregivers while they go through their cancer journey.
“The thing I hear about the most is the cards,” Lauren says. “It’s that constant reminder that they’re being thought of, that they’re being prayed for. We have volunteers who make them at age 2 all the way up to my great aunt, who is 95 years old. People just love that every card they get is from a different person, a different age.”
Caring for the Caregiver
It’s not just the cancer patients who benefit from Phil’s Friends’ benevolence. Debbie Carlson’s husband, Brett, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer at age 49. He went to be with God a year later. It was Phil’s Friends’ support that propped her up as she cared for her husband. Phil’s Friends continues to do so now that he is gone.
“I think that’s what’s unique about Phil’s Friends: It’s not just the person going through the cancer that they show care for; it’s the whole family,” she says.
Joyce Johnson, wife of breast-cancer-survivor Dave, agrees.
“Those cards, for the caregiver, it was my ‘Let’s keep up the good work here, girl’ type of thing. It was my lifeline to somebody else,” she says.
And all of this because one man, his body besieged by cancer, promised Jesus to spend the rest of his life helping make others’ cancer journeys in some way easier if he should somehow recover.
“Phil is here by the grace of God. He never takes credit for why he’s still alive, never takes credit for why Phil’s Friends exists. He gives all the glory to God. God clearly had a plan and a purpose for Phil’s life,” Lauren says.
For all its victories, the organization is in a tenuous transition time. In a sense, it is battling its own success. With each patient whose life is bettered by a Phil’s Friends care package or card comes signups for one, two, 10 or 20 more patients via word-of-mouth testimony. And with those signups comes the need for more money and volunteers to help the organization thrive.
“The vision for Phil’s Friends is to eventually support people around the world,” Phil says. “The vision is there and it’s very clear, but how God chooses to connect the dots, that’s what we’ll have to wait and see.”