Sunday, December 17, 2017
News Roundup

Grief leads to goodness for Lithia widow, widower

If a little boy sat in class, shy of supplies, Mandy Van Brunt found a way to quietly provide pencils or paper.

If a little girl arrived at school, shaken and sad because authorities had taken her parents to jail the night before, the Frost Elementary teacher found a way to lend comfort without drawing attention to herself.

In her 15 years as a teacher, Van Brunt always gravitated toward Title I schools, putting herself in a position to provide for some of the school district's neediest children. Until her final days, she always found a way to help her students.

Van Brunt — a 38-year-old wife, mother and teacher — collapsed in her home last month and never recovered. She suffered from ulcerative colitis for 10 years, but doctors remain uncertain about the cause of death.

Her husband is certain, however, about her love of children.

"Her heart was always into teaching," Bryan Van Brunt said. "She didn't care what color they were or what was going on in their lives, she would meet their needs.

"A lot of teachers do that. Mandy was special because she was my wife, but there's more teachers than Mandy who do what she did."

Now Van Brunt hopes to find a way to help more students, with an assist from fellow FishHawk resident Melanie Brockmeier.

In the days after his wife's death, Van Brunt kept running into neighbors who told him he needed to meet Brockmeier. People knew that Brockmeier lost her husband, Leon, suddenly in fall 2012, and then, as she prepared for his memorial, discovered she was pregnant with their third child.

Today, Brockmeier and her kids — Brodie, Carson and 14-month-old Noah Leon soldier on — an inspiration to many.

"We're doing okay," Brockmeier said. "We have better days than others. It comes in waves. Honestly, Noah is the best thing that ever happened to us. He's the happiest, most carefree baby. There's never a moment he hasn't brought complete joy to our house."

In the wake of such a challenging moment, Brockmeier hasn't just plunged into being a loving single mother, she has pledged to her husband and herself that she would extend his legacy of helping others.

"I knew if I did nothing to make the world a better place, I would not be living the way he wanted me to," she said. "People know about my story and when they learn about other widows … I seem to always get phone calls from people who have gone through a similar situation, asking for advice."

Brockmeier said she had her a-ha moment a few months ago. With a background in counseling, she said God led her to launch two efforts: a Facebook chatroom called Not Another Casserole and a nonprofit called Operation Lotus.

Though she certainly appreciated receiving baked dishes and home-cooked meals when she first grieved, Melanie said after a while she needed more than comfort food.

"There came a time when food wasn't the answer," Melanie said. "I needed people to listen and hear me out."

Now, Not Another Casserole offers widows and widowers an honest, open place where they can talk about the roller coaster of emotions that comes with grieving the loss of a spouse.

Operation Lotus will seek to not only help widows, but anyone who has experienced something tragic, "whether it be an accident or the death of a spouse or your house burns down."

Its first project is giving hope to the Van Brunts — Bryan and 7-year-old Jonah — by launching the Mandy Van Brunt Memorial School Supply Drive. Seeking donations of backpacks, school supplies and gift cards to retail outlets, they've set up four dropoff locations: Kids 'R' Kids in Valrico (4321 Lynx Paw Trail); Kids 'R' Kids in Lithia (5815 Kids Crossing Drive); the Sosa Law Office in Brandon (952 W Brandon Blvd.); and the Ice Sports Forum near Brandon (10222 Elizabeth Place).

Interested supporters also can mail donations to Operation Lotus, P.O. Box 3056, Riverview, FL 33568.

Supplies will go to students at Frost Elementary, but in subsequent years they hope to expand to include other students.

"This school drive honors two things: Mandy and her heart for children, and the other teachers who do this and do it quietly," Bryan said.

In case you're wondering, there's a reason why Brockmeier chose "lotus" for the name of her nonprofit.

It's a beautiful flower that grows in the worst conditions.

That's all I'm saying.

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