Makeover benefits ill Battle Ground couple

Home addition takes shape through volunteers, donations

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

BATTLE GROUND — Jennie Epp had the life she dreamed about — a loving husband, three healthy sons and a house. Many people would have been content. Not Jennie. She prayed for God to pull her closer.

“Since that point, my life has been turned upside down,” she said.

First, she and her young family were forced to move in with her husband Brian’s parents after his landscaping business dried up during the recession. Just as they secured their footing again the bottom fell out. Not once but twice.

YOU CAN HELP

Donations to Brian and Jennie Epp can be made at any Columbia Credit Union.

On the Web

Learn more about the Epps at this blog.

Jennie Epp was diagnosed in 2007 with smoldering myeloma, a cancer related to the bone marrow. Three years later, doctors diagnosed her then-40-year-old husband with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Brian Epp’s motor skills have eroded to the point where he needs assistance to make it up the stairs to his bedroom. No prognosis exists on how long he might live. ALS has no known cure.

Aware of this, Brian’s lifelong friend, Curtis Wharton, organized a group of local contractors and businesses to build an addition to the side of their house that would allow the couple to sleep on the first floor. The remodeling project will transform the existing living room into a master bedroom and expand it to include a master bathroom.

The Battle Ground Home Makeover, as it has been labeled, will allow Brian Epp to spend more time with his family in his remaining days, Wharton said.

The project has morphed from an addition into a complete home makeover, as several local businesses and national chains donated materials for roof repairs, painting and landscaping. Wharton expected the entire project would be completed in mid-February.

I'm human

The sounds of men drilling, hammering and moving ladders surrounded Jennie and Brian Epp in their driveway last week. The Monday morning skies were overcast. A makeshift firepit provided warmth to ward off the chill. The mood was bittersweet.

If he were healthy, Brian would have been on that roof banging a hammer, laying tile, doing whatever needed to be done. He had the capacity to work longer and harder than others, marveled his mother, Evelyn Epp.

Instead, he sat in a motorized chair, taking in the scene. He acknowledged people with a nod, offered a quick smile. Occasionally, he tapped on a typepad and a robotic voice sounded.

“It’s been so nice for the past few days,” Brian said through his DynaVox, a machine that has allowed him to communicate even as ALS has caused his speech abilities to deteriorate.

A few feet away, his wife’s mood was more somber.

She longed to serve others, she said. Her new normal relied on her accepting others’ aid.

“It’s a good thing,” she said of the volunteers, “because I’m human and I can’t do it all on my own.”

God’s ways

Jennie Epp would not have chosen this grueling path to grow closer to God. Who would?

Four years ago she worried about her children growing up without a mother. Things started to look up in 2009 when her husband began a new career with the Longview Police Department. Today, both face major illness, and she finds herself taking care of her husband and her children, ages 7 to 12, all while fighting cancer.

The help of others — relatives, church family, community members — is vital.

“I’m not saying I’m excited but I have learned God’s ways are the best ways,” Jennie Epp, 41, said. “But at the same point, walking it is still difficult. I still have my doubts.”

Chief among those doubts is whether she is “crazy” for opting to seek an alternative method in her fight against cancer, as opposed to undergoing chemotherapy. Her cancer is at stage I. She would need chemo and a stem cell transplant to temporarily wipe it out. Even with aggressive treatment, doctors have told her the cancer would return in three years.

Instead, she has embraced a radical diet.

She makes her food from scratch, and avoids sugar, salt, dairy products and processed foods.

She paused for a moment to consider anything she might have forgotten. Brian noticed this and tapped his fingers on his keypad. “Organic,” he said through the DynaVox, describing her diet.

“I’m choosing to go against what everybody else is doing and that’s really hard,” she summarized.

Not afraid to die

Brian Epp’s left index finger rested on his brow. His right index finger moved deliberately as his head bowed.

Suddenly, his head raised and he stared straight ahead. Words poured out.

“I am not afraid to die because I know where I am going when it comes to that,” the 41-year-old said through the DynaVox.

He spoke about the peace he had in God and how he felt God had placed him in his current situation to bless others.

Answers that took the DynaVox 15 seconds to say often took two minutes to type.

Brian Epp refused to pity himself. His concern centered around the well-being of his wife and sons.

Jennie has had to “pick up the pieces,” he said. Their marriage has matured since his diagnosis, he noted, adding he should have allowed his wife to be more independent earlier in their marriage.

His youngest child, Connor, opened the screen door to the kitchen. A rainbow had appeared.

Brian Epp observed that his children had already begun to forget how he was before his diagnosis. This troubled him. So did the thought of them growing up without their dad.

“Yes,” he said, his natural voice slow and uneasy. “That’s hard.”

Wake-up call

Energetic. Motivated. Loving.

Superlatives raced off Wharton’s tongue Monday morning as he spoke via phone about his friend of 30 years, Brian Epp. The two hunted, fished and rode dirt bikes together in their youth.

Epp’s current predicament served as a wake-up call for Wharton.

“I’ve got money, I’ve got a nice house and four beautiful children. … With that said, I realize that could be me right there,” said Wharton, who owns Wharton Construction & Restoration.

The severity of Epp’s health problems also spurred Wharton to action. He started the home makeover project before he had raised the money to do so. He reasoned that, if he had to, he would pay for it out of pocket. That has not been the case.

Volunteers and donated materials have flowed in. Wharton estimated the project’s total cost would be around $70,000, the majority of which would be donated.

Doing the home makeover provided Wharton great joy because it served as an opportunity to repay someone who had helped countless others.

“Over the last 25 years … I did see him do this type of stuff for other people,” Wharton said. “He was always the first guy to volunteer.”

Thankful

Just when it appeared the Epps’ medical hardships could not get any worse, Brian’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in October. She later had a mastectomy.

Evelyn Epp has resolved to continue helping her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

“None of us are exempt” from pain and suffering, she said from her son’s kitchen table. Her husband, Landis Epp, is a well-known trauma chaplain in Clark County.

Faith and the community’s support have fortified the Epps. Adversity has tested them, made them stronger, said Pastor Bob Carlson of Brush Prairie Baptist Church. Amid their challenges they have stayed faithful to their church family, he added.

“This is a depth of faith that is not experienced in our comfort zones,” Carlson said.

Jennie Epp looked forward to the addition being finished on her home, she said, so she could begin serving others. She talked about being eager to visit people in local hospitals.

The trials she and her husband face on a daily basis have unlocked a deeper sense of compassion for others in need, she said.

“I hate it and I wish it would go away,” she said of her cancer, “but I am thankful at the same time.”

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.