What happens when ordinary people suddenly find themselves thrust into unspeakable tragedy, addiction or disability? We found three Fort Dodge area residents making a quiet but powerful difference in their world despite what seems like insurmountable hurdles in their lives. Their stories are different; their life message is powerful- three individual lives, three extraordinary people from your neighborhood.
The doctor sat down Jeffery Hanson's parents and told them the grim news, "If there were three rain drops in the entire world and you walked outside and one of them hit you those are the chances you have of conceiving a child."
Jeff Hanson and family.
Hanson said, "Apparently, my mother got hit twice by those rain drops because not only was I born but I have a sister too!"
Defying the odds seems to be the life story of Jeffery Hanson. When Hanson was born the doctors were baffled yet again; they had no explanation why he was born without hands and with only one leg. Growing up Hanson's parents didn't have the money for an expensive prosthesis and so they went to Shrine Hospital in Minnesota where Hanson was fitted for a custom leg and two artificial arms for no cost through a special program the Hospital sponsored. Hanson was only a young boy when he made his trip to Shrine Hospital but he still remembers being inspired by a boy who had no hands or feet playing ball with the other children.
"The boy would put the ball between his chin and shoulder and he would toss it to the other kids and then as it was thrown to him he would pick it up with his teeth and start the process over again. I watched this boy have a blast playing ball. He didn't know what limitation meant. He was no different then any other kid out there. He just saw what he wanted to do and found a way to make it happen."
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Today Hanson is husband to Jeanie, and father to Jennifer, 14; Jill, 12; Jessica, 10 and Josie, 2. He is also the Art Director at Heartland Communications in Fort Dodge where he is a talented cartoonist and graphic designer and oversees several editorial covers for magazines such as The Iowa Sportsman, Family Fish and Game and Industrial Lift and Hoist.
When most people look at Jeffery Hanson's work they think, "Wow! What a talented artist!" When they realize the man who created and drew it was someone who has no hands one can only stand back in awe of how it could even be done.
"My talent was found out when I was about five years old. Dad came home one day and he had a little sack under his arms that had a dancing Snoopy on it. All on my own I ended up drawing that dancing Snoopy; it was a near perfect copy. My parents saw my talent that day and encouraged me to pursue it. I never stopped drawing since," said Hanson.
"The funny thing is that I used to have artificial arms and my parents made me wear them to school. What they didn't know is that I would hang them up in my locker before school started each day! I hated wearing those fake hands. I wanted to touch and experience things! My family expected me to do everything everyone else does. For most of my life I grew up in the small town of Nevada, Iowa and it was a good thing because everyone knew me; they didn't see me as any different as anyone else. Most of my friends forgot that I didn't have hands, my handicap was not even an issue. I was accepted."
What is Hanson's passion? "I want to shift over to what I can do for the next generation to help them. I have a heart for public school kids. I spoke in a public school of 500 and after my talk the skinniest, most awkward student came up to me and thanked me for coming and he told me it really helped his life. I cannot get the image of that kid out of my mind. I want to help the next generation of kids. I want them to know that there is a God that loves them and cares about them and that it doesn't matter what trials they have in their life, they can use their trials or handicaps to help others and be a blessing. Finally I want kids to realize that everyone has a God given talent and if they could discover that talent and use it that is what they need to do with their life."
Ed and Debbie Neimann
If you spend any amount of time with Ed or Debbie Neimann you will walk away from their presence encouraged and inspired. Their loss is still fresh, their grief raw. On September 24, 2009 their son, Benjamin, took his own life. Ben was 18 years old.
There's no easy way to talk about suicide, nothing brings more heart wrenching pain than to lose a child and yet through Ed and Debbie's grief their thoughts were always on how they could use their tragedy to help others.
"We can't get Ben back but I've asked God to use his death to change lives - beginning with me," Ed Neimann said.
"Benjamin was the sunshine of our family; he was always a joy, pleasant, outgoing and happy" Ed Neimann said about his son.
"Everybody loved Benjamin" said Debbie Neimann.
There were no signs that Benjamin was contemplating suicide. The police, coroner's office and military did an investigation into Benjamin Neimann's suicide. The family was left with no answers.
"The greatest agony is the loss of your child to add on top of that a loss by suicide and then on top of that you don't know why the suicide happened; it just adds more pain and complexity to it." Ed Neimann said.
How did the Neimann's deal with such devastating grief?
"The first night when I found out I went through all kinds of emotions- grief mostly. For a moment I was tempted to get angry with God. Why did God let this happen? And then I thought, Jesus died for me on the cross, how could I get angry with the one who gave His life for me? And so I decided I am not going to go on that road. I am not going to let this turn into bitterness. I think you need to make a conscious decision. I am not going to let this make me a bitter man but a better man," said Neimann. "I am going to have faith and trust God."
"I have a plaque in my office that says, 'Faith is the victory.' I find that saying to be true. Your faith in God, your trust in the promises of God gives you victory over these circumstances in life" shared Neimann.
Upwards of 1,000 people attended Benjamin Neimann's funeral. "We were absolutely overwhelmed at the outpouring of love and support we received from friends in the Fort Dodge community," said Debbie Neimann. "We know it is the grace of God in answer to many people's prayers that has held us up."
Ed and Debbie Neimann want to keep the memory of their son alive. Ed Neimann wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it across the table. It read, "Benjamin Neimann, in life he blessed many, in death he changed many."
The Neimanns are currently working with the American Federation for Suicide Prevention. "There has been an increase in suicides in the military and in high schools," Ed Neimann said. "In fact after Ben's suicide there were two other suicides in the Fort Dodge region. We would like to be involved in helping other families that suffer this loss."
"I also think there needs to be more suicide awareness and prevention. If you look at the kids from Ben's high school Ben would have been at the bottom of the list of those who you would think are struggling with suicidal thoughts. He was a kid who had everything going for him and he ends up taking his life, how many other kids are like that?"
"Somebody needs to get in there and talk to kids to make them aware of this issue. What can we do to help prevent it? Depression is a leading cause of suicide and everybody goes through depression; there is not a single person alive who hasn't gone through depression and there are not that many people who haven't had suicidal thoughts at one time or another, even highly successful people."
"What we need to do is say to teenagers, 'Here is what is going to happen to you one day: you are going to go through some tough times. You may have suicidal thoughts. How are you going to deal with it?' and then educate them on what to do when they have these thoughts.
Ed Neimann stressed "If you are having suicidal thoughts, talk to someone, you are not alone."
Blake Harvey has been living in Fort Dodge all his life. He began drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana when he was in 6th grade. He was 12 years old. What began as an acting out from the pain of his parent's divorce ended up spiraling into a ten year abyss of violence, drug addiction, alcoholism and crime.
"My addiction started out with drinking only on weekends and hanging out with friends and quickly progressed to drinking on school days. I foolishly thought, 'Hey this stuff is making all my problems go away.' It was the end of my freshman year when I tried meth. I was hooked from the very first line I snorted."
In school Harvey was awarded "Who's Who of America" for his grade point average and he played varsity baseball his freshman year but underneath the faade he was empty and miserable.
"My sophomore year I became destructive. The girl I was dating became pregnant. I was running around 3 pounds of marijuana a week through our school and smoking about an ounce a day. The legacy I was leaving behind was one that killed a lot of people that looked up to me."
Things went from bad to worse. Harvey spent most of his senior year in jail for assault. The life that seemed so fun now became a matter of life or death. "I have been stabbed two times, shot at, jumped, robbed and beaten with metal rods."
Just when things seemed to be at their worst for Harvey, he tried ecstasy and acid and the hallucinations and voices seemed to overtake him. "I ended up checking myself into a hospital. While in the hospital some lady told me about God. I thought she was some religious freak. I didn't realize that God isn't a religion but a relationship."
Harvey remembers September 10, 1999 as clear as day; it was the day he was set free. He attended church and there at church he was introduced to a relationship with Jesus Christ. The very next day he stopped smoking, doing drugs and drinking. He has been completely clean since that day and dedicated to giving back.
"I own a home, two cars; I have a wonderful wife, a two year old little girl, another one on the way and I have full custody of my 14 year old son. I have friends that I can count on and restored relationships with my family. I never dreamed that was possible. I thought I was destined to a life of crime or prison." Harvey said.
Today Harvey works as a substance abuse and problem gambling counselor for Community and Family Resources in Fort Dodge. Harvey says, "I invest in other's lives because the only thing that makes a lasting difference is what you do for people."
Investing in other people's lives is not only what he does, it is his passion. Harvey does individual and group counseling, as well as helps struggling addicts to overcome their addictions. He then encourages them to give back by getting them involved in the community. "I believe in meeting people where they are."