Couple rebuilding family after losing 7 kids in fire, welcomes child No. 13

Published: Sunday, March 20, 2016 @ 11:44 AM
Updated: Sunday, March 20, 2016 @ 3:41 PM

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A Pennsylvania couple was devastated when seven of their eight children were killed in a fire five years ago

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Janelle and Ted Clouse lost Christina, 11, Isabelle, 9, Brady, 7, Hannah, 6, Heidi 4, Miranda, 18 months and Samantha, 9 months, on March 8, 2011. Their daughter Leah survived; she was 3.

Since then, the Clouses have welcomed four more children, and Janelle Clouse is pregnant with another.

"Time heals our pain, but we always remember, and we would never want to forget our babies," Janelle told People magazine. "All we can do is just keep looking forward. All we have is the future."

The family keeps a collage of photos of the seven children who died propped up on a fireplace mantel. Janelle and Ted said seeing the faces of their lost children reminds them that "every single moment" is precious and that nothing should be taken for granted.

"You have to move ahead, if you live in the past you're not really living," Ted told People. "But they will be with us, always."

The fire that killed the Clouses' children blazed in the family's farmhouse while Ted was out working and Janelle was tending to cows in a barn 100ft away from the family's home. While Janelle was milking the cows, Leah ran into the barn and told her mother that her baby sister, Miranda, was "playing with smoke."

"I went to the house and opened the door and the smoke knocked me down," Janelle said. "I knew if the fire was that strong, there was no one alive in my house."

The seven children died from a mix of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.

Fire officials think 18-month-old Miranda was probably holding a blanket too close to the space heater in the kitchen. They think she dragged the burning blanket into the living room, where it ignited couch cushions and spread.

Four months after the fire, Janelle gave birth to Gabriel.

"I was happy, but I had this terrible sense of guilt because it seemed like he replaced my dead children," Janelle said. "It was a bittersweet moment. Time healed that pain, though. I realized that he was an innocent baby that needed love."

She later gave birth to Yvonne, 3, Gordon, 2, and Jedidiah, 11 months. She's expected to give birth to another son in April.

But the Clouses will never forget the children they lost five years ago. Their new additions are just that -- additions, not replacements.

"We have 13 children," Ted said. "When people ask how many kids we have, we say 13."

"We talk about them all the time," Janelle said. "When the time is right, when the kids are a little older, we will tell them about the brave siblings they never go to meet." 

Janelle and Ted Clouse have learned to "live but never forget" about the tragic accident.

Posted by People on Friday, March 18, 2016

Big brother comforts sick baby sister in heartwarming viral video

Published: Tuesday, January 09, 2018 @ 6:43 AM

Children holding hands. (Photo credit: Karolina Michalak/
Karolina Michalak/
Children holding hands. (Photo credit: Karolina Michalak/ Michalak/

A video of a boy comforting his baby sister is warming hearts across the country.

>> Need something to lift your spirits? Read more uplifting news 

A video shared to Facebook by mom Danielle Davis of Haughton, Louisiana, shows her son quietly rocking his sleeping sister in his arms when she wasn’t feeling well. The video was viewed more than 2 million times on Instagram.

>> On HotTopics.TV: Baby girl cries tears of joy when she hears her mom’s voice for the first time

“The kids adore each other,” Davis told “Good Morning America.” “He can always make her laugh. They are siblings, so they have their moments of jealousy, but that’s to be had. Ninety percent of the time they really very loving toward each other.”

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Check out the adorable clip below as 5-year-old John comforts 1-year-old Clara.

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He’s had a tough year, but 10-year-old is learning to walk again

Published: Sunday, December 31, 2018 @ 3:01 PM

Zach Pickard is almost 11 and loves Nintendo and "Impractical Jokers." Pickard is one of 144 children worldwide with rapid aging disease progeria. He recently had surgery to repair a hip socket and walk again. Pickard was an ideal patient, according to his parents.

Zach Pickard has had a rough, sometimes physically painful, year.

But because he is Zach, a tiny person with an outsize personality, a quick wit and the unflagging devotion of a new dog who is bigger than he is, you wouldn’t know it.

Some people enjoy bits and pieces of this world. Zach loves everything, all the time: magnets, making “slime,” Nintendo, “Impractical Jokers” on TV, YouTube and KFC, with which his mother says he is obsessed. His tiny voice, like that of a doll, is most often roiling with laughter as he delights in the latest verbal or practical joke he has engineered.

At 10 (he’ll be 11 in January), Zach is one of only 144 children in the world with the rapid aging disease progeria. He recently chose to have a seven-hour surgery to repair his damaged hip socket. He had been unable to walk for months, and he was restricted to a wheelchair.

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For a child who has had to adjust to a slew of limitations in his life — tiny stature, stiff joints, baldness and prominent veins — being in a wheelchair all the time was too much.

Zach’s parents knew that two other children with progeria had gone through the surgery proposed for Zach. It’s called VDRO, for varus derotation osteotomy. It tips the ball of the femur into the hip socket, where it is stabilized with plates and screws to hold the bone in the proper position.

Before the surgery, Zach’s mom introduced him to a friend of hers who was in a wheelchair. The friend and Zach discussed the limitations of wheelchair living.

Then his parents, Brandon and Tina Pickard, left the decision up to their son: Would he have surgery? Would he adapt to the wheelchair instead?

Zach chose surgery. The operation was Sept. 20 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The Pickards called the seven hours excruciating. Occasionally someone in the operating room would call the waiting room to let them know how Zach was doing, but the rest of the time, his parents sat with their fears: What if the surgeons didn’t have enough skin to stitch up? Because they are so tiny and lack reserves of body fat, children with progeria don’t have as much skin surface as other children, making grafting a near impossibility.

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“We were really thinking he was going to be a grumpy patient, but he turned out great,” Tina Pickard said.

While in a brace post-surgery, Zach gained a much-needed pound and a half. He is 41 inches tall and 32 pounds now. The Pickards hope that in 2018, Zach will be able to resume participation in a progeria drug trial in Boston that is exploring drugs that can add months to the lives of progeria patients.

One in four to eight million newborns have the gene mutation that causes progeria. The mutated gene causes a collection of symptoms that resemble premature aging. The average life expectancy is 13 years. The Pickards have invested in beating that number, becoming active fundraisers for the Progeria Research Foundation.

Just after Zach’s surgery, Carmen the dog arrived. She joins Zach’s guinea pig, K.C. Pickard. Carmen barks at strangers but is a friendly, mellow animal, rubbing her face against Zach to ask for head pats.

Zach rolls on the floor to be closer to Carmen, who weighs about as much as he does. In the manner of the best child-pet friends, Carmen is fascinated by everything Zach does.

Zach has been out of school and instructed at home so he doesn’t fall behind in his last year of elementary school before moving on to sixth grade and middle school. To return to school, he has to be able to independently go to the restroom. He has “land” therapy and “aqua” therapy weekly.

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The Pickards have one word for their son’s decision to have surgery, which they repeat to Zach: Brave.

For Zach, it’s a joke. What does “brave” mean?

“It means being brave,” he says, breaking into peals of giggles.

Asked whether the string of magnets he’s working on is a collar for Carmen, he grimaces.

He casts the side-eye of a soon-to-be middle school student, then glances at his big dog and the relatively short band of magnets: “She’s not a Pomeranian, you know.”

Here’s how much strength resides in that tiny body: Zach walks across the Pickard family room aided by a metal walker. He pauses, flexes his arms on the walker and lifts his feet from the floor.

His parents murmur: This is huge, they say.

And suddenly it felt like Christmas, even though it was only Dec. 18.

Jewish and Muslim families form lasting friendship after viral photo protesting travel ban

Published: Wednesday, December 20, 2017 @ 3:34 PM

The Bendat-Appells of Dearfield, Ill., are a rabbi, his wife and their three children. The Yildirims of Schaumburg, Ill., are a Muslim, his wife and their four kids. The two families met protesting the Trump administration travel ban in February. A photo of them together went viral, sparking a friendship through the year. The families say they plan to continue their regular get-togethers.

CHICAGO — A year ago, these two families could not have predicted they would be together this week lighting candles on a menorah.

The Bendat-Appells of Deerfield, Ill., are a Jewish rabbi and his wife, who works full-time for a Jewish organization, and their three children, who all attend a Jewish Day school on the North Shore.

The Yildirims, who live in Schaumburg, Ill., are a Muslim husband and wife and their four children, who have never set foot in a synagogue and before this year had no Jewish friends.

Yet their friendship is a reflection of what they celebrated together Sunday evening at the rabbi’s home. The ritual of lighting the menorah during the eight days of Hanukkah reminds Jewish people of how a tiny bit of oil was able to create light in the darkness for much longer than expected, just as the bond between the two families has continued to illuminate their lives, months after their chance meeting during a protest against the Trump administration’s travel ban in February at O’Hare Airport.

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At the protest, each father hoisted a child onto his shoulders — then 9-year-old Adin Bendat-Appell wearing his yarmulke, and then 7-year-old Meryem Yildirim in her hijab — and the two poster-carrying kids were captured sharing a laugh together in a Chicago Tribune photograph.

Since then, the photo has gone viral, viewed by people around the world who saw the image as a symbol of hope amid political disagreement and changing immigration policies.

The two families have enjoyed a friendship that continues months later, including joining together for a meal at the breaking of Ramadan fast, a 5K walk for peace outside the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center and other celebrations.

“We do this to show that something that is smaller than you expect to be able to survive and bring light can,” said Yael Bendat-Appell, the rabbi’s wife, as she guided the children’s hands while they took turns lighting the candles.

The Muslim mother smiled as she nudged her daughters closer.

“Wow,” Amy Yildirim said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

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Both families were surprised by the attention thrust on them immediately after their photo went public.

Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, who teaches meditation for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York, said he received dozens of Facebook comments, emails and voicemails from strangers. While there were a few negative responses from people who did not condone bonding between Jews and Muslims, most of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Bendat-Appell said he was most touched by religious Jews who wrote with the Hebrew words “Kiddush Hashem,” which means “You’re sanctifying God’s name.”

“We never did anything heroic or extraordinary,” Bendat-Appell said. “It still doesn’t feel heroic. It feels human.”

For the Yildirims, the photo’s quick popularity at first triggered anxiety. Fatih Yildirim, a longtime permanent resident of the U.S., had procrastinated becoming an official U.S. citizen for years, because he thought it was an unnecessary formality. When an executive order prohibited people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., he and his wife decided citizenship would protect him from having to leave his wife and children, who were already citizens. They worried the image of him at the protest would be used against him in his application, Amy Yildirim said.

Fatih Yildirim’s family in Turkey alerted him to international news stations using the photo and reporting that he was befriending enemies. He told his family abroad that if anyone tried to persecute them because of his photo, they should publicly disown him for their own safety. He said he has since been granted citizenship in the U.S., which helped ease the family’s concerns.

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“It’s so positive,” Fatih Yildirim said of his friendship with Rabbi Bendat-Appell. “My friends ask me to ask him questions (about the Jewish religion) sometimes.”

The families were grateful for the relationship that began to blossom the minute each father carried home the other’s contact information they exchanged at the airport. At a Shabbat dinner days later, the Bendat-Appell and Yildirim children played happily together while the adults got to know one another. They reunited several times in the months that followed, often bringing friends along to share the experience. While the adults occasionally compare notes on how biblical stories are told in each of their religions, most of their bonding is just about normal, every day topics: where they work, what the kids are doing, what ingredients are in the delicious meals they share.

The parents say they never delve too much into the details of why the families get together, because the children aren’t looking for an explanation.

On Sunday, after a quick exchange of hellos, the Yildirim children tossed off their coats and immediately ran into a playroom, where Adin, now 10, schooled the others on the rules of a game of dreidel. It didn’t take long before all the children were munching on chocolates and spinning the dreidel in hopes of it landing on the Hebrew symbol for “take it all.”

“They don’t see the other children as a label,” said Amy Yildirim. “It’s just their friends. I think that’s great.”

The Bendat-Appells and Yildirims say they plan to continue regular get-togethers, bringing in friends and family to expand the relationships whenever possible.

Yael Bendat-Appell said she feels honored that her family members were the ones captured in an image that reminds people of the humanity that continues every day in the world, even when not caught by a camera.

“It’s heartening to know that these things are happening, that people are doing such hard work to build bridges,” she said.

Teen’s baking touches lives of those fighting cancer

Published: Sunday, December 17, 2017 @ 2:28 PM

Autumn Gunnell, 14, has touched people's lives with her cooking. Autumn cooks for cancer patients and their caregivers. She has been taking baking classes for a few years. Autumn says she enjoys the cooking as a nice thing to do.

BATAVIA, Ill. — Sugar Grove resident Mary Ann Gee, 73, reached a personal milestone the first Monday in December after receiving her final chemotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer which she has been undergoing since late last winter.

It was celebrated with a home-baked loaf of zucchini bread along with a note taped to it, congratulating her on her final treatment.

“There is a woman that works here at the Advocate Dreyer Highland facility whose daughter bakes bread every week for the patients,” Gee said. “Most kids her age are texting and involved with their friends, but every Sunday she bakes banana or zucchini bread and it’s here Monday for the patients and caregivers to enjoy.”

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The home baker that Gee and others have never met is 14-year-old Batavia resident Autumn Gunnell, who has a twin sister with another seasonal name – Summer. Their mother Carol Gunnell has worked with Advocate for six years doing patient registration and said her daughter’s baking kick began this summer after seeing that a bunch of bananas were going bad.

“Autumn has been taking food classes the last couple years in middle school, and she loves to cook and bake,” Carol Gunnell explained. “She’s got a big heart and is very sensitive and decided to bake with whatever extra stuff we had around the house. She’s made a couple dozen loaves by now and has done this on her own — I’ve had nothing to do with it.”

When bananas weren’t around, a bounty of summer zucchini led to making a second type of bread, based on recipes Autumn Gunnell said she found on Pinterest.

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“I have been taking food classes and like to bake bread for the fun of it,” Autumn explained. “My mom suggested that maybe I make some for the patients at the oncology office. I’ve not met any of them, but I feel good about this. I feel I know the people eating the bread I made and that there is a connection.”

Laura Waldoch, who works as a nurse practitioner for Advocate Medical Group West Oncology, said the youngster’s baking efforts “have touched me” and as a mother of six children herself, she realizes how unique Autumn is.

“Kids normally aren’t that altruistic at her age, and it means a lot being that kind to someone else,” Waldoch said. “Patients that come here have reached a pretty dim point in their lives and typically aren’t treated like that — having something homemade for them. When they see the bread, it always brings a smile.”

Autumn Gunnell said she looks forward to her weekly ritual and that both her twin sister and her friends “think it’s cool that I’m doing this.”

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“My sister encourages me, and my friends think it’s nice for a kid to step out of the boundaries of what kids usually do,” she said.

Waldoch said Autumn’s efforts are more than just about satisfying basic human needs.

“This shows that someone cares about them and patients need more than just medications and treatment — they need emotional support,” Waldoch said. “Food is something basic families gather around for, and food is comfort in itself. To me, this plays on so many levels. I think this is what comes from good parenting, to have a child doing something like this at her age. Most are understandably very egocentric right now and to have her take time out of her life to bake for strangers, that’s pretty special.”

Gee agreed that Autumn is someone special.

“This has really touched me and is something that didn’t have to be done,” Gee added. “Someone went out of her way to make others feel better. My treatments are over and hopefully I’m fine. At my age, every day is a great day. But this girl is unusual.”