Skokie dad serves others, inspires his family
Updated: June 19, 2012 3:37PM
Just as they did last year, Eric Lentz and Deanna Hallagan are hosting a Father’s Day bash in Wisconsin.
The party and the day are especially meaningful to the Skokie couple and their family because of the significance the venue — Rustic Falls Nature Camp — has played in their lives.
For the past six years, Eric, Deanna and their kids Sarah, 18, and Patrick, 13, have relied on the campgrounds for relief from a grim realty: Eric has cancer.
Yet instead of rolling over, he has been at the helm of transforming the former farmland into campgrounds for under-served, special needs and cancer survivor children.
Eric’s drive to serve others while his own health is deprived has both untied and inspired the family of four.
“I don’t think we folded as a family and I think that’s something we watched from Eric,” said his wife of 21 years.
The Lentzes learned in the summer of 2005 that Eric, 49, had stage-four colon cancer. By Fourth of July weekend it had spread to his liver. Doctors gave a prognosis of 12 to 15 months before his body would succumb to the disease.
“The signs were there but we didn’t have any clue,” Deanna said. “We went from raising two kids and worrying about our jobs to having this other part of our life become the center.”
Eric immediately underwent surgery a few days before Patrick’s ninth birthday.
Despite dad’s condition, the family continued their plans to host a party for their youngest son.
“It seems like a small thing,” Deanna said, “but it was really important to keep really good things in life in focus.”
Since the diagnosis, Eric became even more steadfast in raising the kids, an attitude and conviction that has sustained him the past seven years.
“He’s just been this incredible warrior throughout,” Deanna said.
Eric also started working toward a lifelong dream of creating a children’s camp.
In 2006, the Lentzes purchased and began developing a nature camp on a dairy farm in Burlington, Wis. A few years later they renovated a cobblestone farmhouse across the street into a lodge. The Rustic Falls Nature Camp welcomed its first group of campers in 2010.
Eric has not shied from the physical demands of the restoration despite sometimes carrying a chemotherapy pack in tow. He also invited others to leave their mark, including family friend Lou Manfredini, WGN’s Mr. Fix-It, who installed a spiral staircase.
Over the years dozens of other volunteers helped shape the house and grounds into a sprawling getaway for children, led all the while by Eric.
“He’s like the Pied Piper,” Deanna said. “Every time we would dig a hole or move a rock, he had this vision.”
Because of their dad and what he stands for, Sarah and Patrick also have taken the camp as their cause. Both have involved their schools and classmates along the way. Student council members of McCracken Middle School, from where Patrick just graduated eighth grade, regularly raise money for and volunteer their time at Rustic Falls. Niles Township High School District 219 recently named designated Rustic Falls as its 2013 Dance Marathon beneficiary.
What the brother and sister pair both enjoy the most about Rustic Falls is meeting and spending time with the families who benefit from the services.
Patrick said seeing families with cancer-stricken kids enjoy themselves puts a smile on Eric’s face.
Sarah mentioned a notable marshmallow roast recently with camp guests.
“Some of the kids we’ve seen are so inspiring,” she said. “I feel so lucky to grow up around and be a part of something so amazing.”
She credits her parents with handling Eric’s cancer with “poise and grace.”
“They looked at something so scary and turned it into something positive,” she said.
For the siblings, Rustic Falls isn’t a temporary chore or distraction. Patrick wants to be involved with the camp “his whole life,” he said.
Sarah, a Niles West alumna who recently decided against leaving for Indiana University in the fall because of Eric’s latest surgical procedure, expects to study something related to nonprofit work, to carry forth Rustic Falls’ mission.
“I’d love to work with Rustic Falls after (college),” she said. “It’s an amazing thing we have here and I want to do what I can to make it grow.”
Having a front-row seat to their dad’s battle have caused the Lentz kids, like their mother, to be in awe of his determination.
“There’s not a day that doesn’t go by that he’s not the strongest person I know,” Sarah said. “It’s my dad’s drive that got him through this.”
Patrick said Rustic Falls has helped “make him stronger,” which, in turn, has taught him to rely on his inner strength.
“The camp makes me really proud of him and what he’s done,” he said. “He ties the family together.”
For information about Rustic Fair at Rustic Falls on June 17, see rusticfallsnaturecamp.org.