Life in Circles: Faith

August 13, 2016

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Life In Circles by Stephanie Wagner.

Sponsored by Pro-Master Carpet Cleaning, 231-757-9061,


That feeling that something larger than ourselves will guide us, walk beside us, even carry us through the bumpy journey we call our lives.

From a very young age, Leona Ashley has felt called to serve, but she didn’t always know what that service would look like.

“I have always been a spiritual person, even when I was a little girl. I remember when I was 10 or 12, laying in bed, praying. I had this sense that God wanted to use me for something special.

“At that time, I didn’t have any idea what that might be – only that I would be willing when the time came.”

Her life took her from her childhood home, on to military service, where she served for almost 10 years.  

“I enlisted in September of 1993, and stayed in 9 ½ years.  I got out before my unit shipped to Afghanistan.  I had just had my second daughter, Hanna, and I would have been required to sign over my parental rights before I left. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it and I knew it was time to move on.”

She left the military in January of 2003, then 9 months after Hanna’s birth, her third pregnancy followed.  She and husband, Scott, moved to the Ludington area shortly after.

With no local family, Scott’s focus on his new job, and two children under the age of 3, mothering quickly became the sole focus of Leona’s days.

“I remember standing at the sink, hugely pregnant, hot and miserable, and thinking to myself that I had never really ‘done’ anything. All that praying, that faith that I was supposed to do something important – I felt like I failed in some way.”

Then, with 3 ½ weeks left in her pregnancy, Leona went into early labor.

“I thought I had a UTI, but it turned out to be labor. They put me in an ambulance and rushed me to Grand Rapids, where I ended up delivering Abigail by C-section.  

“I was draped, so I couldn’t see her at first – and then I heard the doctor say, ‘Oh – there is something on her arm.’  She used a strange tone, and I knew something was wrong. I looked around the sheet, and I could see this huge lump.”

Initially, the team didn’t know what caused the large growth on Abigail’s arm.

She was rushed to University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, while Leona remained in Grand Rapids to recover.

“While it was truly one of the worst experiences of our lives, it was also filled with blessings. We were able to have her baptized, and the way this community stepped up to help us was incredible. “

Though the Ashley family was new to the Ludington area, people volunteered to watch the two older toddlers, collected donations to help with expenses, and even brought clothes to the family for their long hospital stay.

“It was so unexpected, and we were completely unprepared.  So many people just embraced us. I am still amazed at the way we were taken care of.”

More importantly, the experience opened Leona up to what she considers a divine blessing. While sitting in a room designated as a quiet space for new mothers to pump breast milk for their ill babies, Leona had a rush of clarity.

“I was alone, pumping for Abigail in a rare moment of quiet, and I suddenly had a weird calm and then this rush of peace wash over me. I could feel God, and in that moment I knew.  I just said, ‘Oh my gosh.  This is what you want me to do. It’s all going to be OK.’ And it was.”

Abigail was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, infantile fibrocarcoma, which resulted in the amputation of her arm, clavicle, and scapula.  

“I’ll never forget when the resident came in to break the news to us that they would have to amputate.  He was so worried about how we would take the news.  I just smiled and told him that it was wonderful news.  There were so many parents there who weren’t going to bring their child home – I was bringing home a healthy baby.  What did I care if she only had one arm?”

Abigail is now a typical 13-year-old. Leona laughs as she describes her “strong will”, noting that her stubborn streak has propelled her through the potential difficulties of navigating the world with one arm.

“She was named the ‘Citizen of the Year’ for the sixth grade last year, she does everything the other girls do, and she doesn’t give up easily.  She’s no different than anyone else!”

Leona and Scott added their fourth daughter, Grace, to the family 19 months after Abigail was born. While their biological family is complete, Leona still feels that she has mothering to do.

“There are so many kids out there who are struggling.  They don’t have good mentors and role models, they are hurting, they are lost. It’s important that someone steps in and lets them know that they are loved, that someone cares.  I can be that person.”

Leona has lived her passion for children both through giving affection freely to her daughters, and finding ways to give back to the community that lifted her through Abigail’s illness.

When the girls were younger, she worked part-time teaching Spanish to elementary students and developing health related children’s programming at the local library.  She and Abigail co-authored a book, “I am a ‘Vivor”, sharing the story of Abigail’s illness, and encouraging all children to celebrate their unique beauty.

Just a year ago, she returned to work full time as the Win With Wellness Coordinator, a community health initiative helping children stay physically active.

The Ashley family has also hosted 18 foreign exchange students, 13 of which lived with them for an entire school year.

“I have kids all over the world who call me ‘Mom’. I love it.  I think of every single one of them as my kids!”

Leona definitely feels like she is living the calling she dreamed of growing up.

“It all comes together eventually. I had faith then, and I still do. Not long ago, Abigail told me she wanted to be just like me when she grew up. When I asked her what she meant, she said she wants to ‘make kids happy’.  And that is exactly what I want to do.

“Our kids – all kids – they are our world.  Everything we say, they hear. What we do matters. None of them should ever fall through the cracks. There are enough of us, if we all pay attention, to catch them.”

Creating a safety net that catches our children before they fall through the cracks is a noble calling indeed.



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