Marlene Pannenbecker could not know that a promise she made to her son would end up helping her through the tragedy of his death.
Damian Pannenbecker died last Jan. 6.
The 19-year-old and five fellow workers were in a van, headed home from a jobsite. Damian was driving, just east of Olds, when the van crashed head-on into an SUV. Two other people lost their lives in the terrible crash — one was Damian’s co-worker, who has never been identified publicly, and the other was the SUV driver, Donna Mills from Olds. Of the four injured, three were in critical condition.
The roads were slick that day. Alcohol and speed were not factors in the crash.
Since that day, Marlene Pannenbecker — just named the 2014 Walmart Mom of the Year Community Champion winner — has gone back many times to the promise she made.
Marlene, 50, and her family, from Lacombe, travel back and forth doing humanitarian work in the Dominican Republic. On one of those trips, Damian had come to love a three-year-old boy they were helping. The boy had five other siblings.
“This little boy was just amazing and my son thought he was the coolest. We found out their story when we were leaving (a few years ago). Damian was sitting with me on the airplane and he was looking out the window and said: ‘Mom, will you please promise me you will do something to look after these kids.’
“At that time I certainly didn’t know we were going to adopt them, that wasn’t our intention … long story short, we did, and I couldn’t be happier about it because without them now to get me out of bed every day and to go to work without feeling sorry for myself, they’re a blessing in disguise.”
Marlene and her husband Denny, who have two older biological daughters, adopted four of the children, who are now 14, 12, eight and six. The two older siblings have been adopted by Marlene’s friends in Blackfalds.
“They are together in Canada. Yeah, it was quite the undertaking,” says Marlene.
“Sometimes life works out where you’re given something because something is going to go away. I don’t know if that’s true but Damian loved these kids. It’s because of him we ended up adopting them.”
Marlene is a woman who clearly finds strength in caring. She won the Mom of the Year award — there were 12,000 nominees — for many good reasons, all of which seem to culminate in the person she is.
“I’ve always been a caregiver. That’s who I am. I love helping people.”
And so, despite her great personal loss in January, she began to regularly visit the severely injured young men in hospital in Calgary, and when they were released months later, she helped arrange daily meals for them.
“In some ways it was for selfish reasons — and that is the fact that they were the last people who were with my son.
“And then I got to know them because I didn’t know them before that, and ended up with some amazing young friends because all of them were in their 20s and early 30s. It’s turned out to be a very positive thing, which makes me happy.”
When Marlene — perhaps best described as a bubbly optimist — isn’t busy with her family, working at Bar W Petroleum and Electric Ltd. in Red Deer, raising donations or doing humanitarian work in the Dominican, she might be found participating in a her “Smiles” group, making a trip to the Hope Mission, a shelter for street people in Edmonton.
She wants her children to understand that while there is poverty in the Dominican, there’s also poverty in Canada.
So they head to the Hope Mission regularly, and hand out things like sandwiches, hot chocolate and toiletries.
The Mom of the Year Award comes with $10,000 to go to a cause Marlene chooses, and $10,000 for herself.
“I’m humbled by the fact that I’ve won this award, because there are many people out there who deserve it. I just happen to be the one who was nominated and due to my circumstances and things that have gone on in our life in the last five years or so, it kind of stands out, and I think that’s why I was chosen. It’s an honour and I’m excited about it, it’s just a little overwhelming.”
She has chosen Hope for the Nations, the Canadian connection to Dominican Feed The Kids, as the group to receive the $10,000.
In the past, Marlene would travel to the Dominican Republic several times a year, bringing along friends and other groups to help out.
“But since Damian’s accident in January, I haven’t gone back this year. I don’t expect to until maybe February or March of next year, when I feel OK to go back. The last time I was ever in the Dominican was with Damian for his birthday last October. We spent his 19th birthday there working in the villages.
“I have a hard time going back right now. I will, but just not yet.
“We call ourselves humanitarians because that’s what we are. We aren’t connected to a church. So when we go on humanitarian trips, we go work in the villages. The last trip I took there was 11 of us.”
Husband Denny is her support group in Canada. “He backs me 100 per cent with what I do.”
So what will she do with the $10,000 she receives for herself?
January, she admits, will be a very hard month because it will be one year since Damian’s death. So a trip to Mexico is planned with a group of friends. Marlene’s holidays are always working ones. This one won’t be. What’s left from the award will “pay our bills and live life.”
“I think in our family we’ve come to the conclusion that the best that we can do is try to honour Damian by being who we were before he passed away, by being happy, by doing things that we know he would be proud of us for.
“I hope that we are doing the right thing. I think we are.”
To see video and more about Marlene and the award, go to www.momoftheyear.ca.