October 26, 2018

Teacher finds fitting way to say thanks for support when he fought for his life

Physical education teacher Steve Imel flashes a smile as members of the sixth-grade class at SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi School in Greenwood strike their best flexing poses on the new fitness area at the school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Physical education teacher Steve Imel flashes a smile as members of the sixth-grade class at SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi School in Greenwood strike their best flexing poses on the new fitness area at the school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

GREENWOOD—Steve Imel says he still gets misty-eyed when he thinks of all the love that people showed him during the toughest time of his life.

And he still gets goose bumps when he considers all the support his family received when he was fighting for his life.

Imel also confides something that he knows most people will find hard to believe concerning his life-threatening struggle with cancer:

“As hard and as ugly as it was at times, I wouldn’t change anything,” says the physical education teacher at SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi School in Greenwood. “I really learned a lot from all the experiences.”

The 39-year-old husband and father has learned the comfort of his faith, the deep love of his family and friends, the depth of support from a Catholic school community, and the bonds that connect people who share the same journey of fear, uncertainty and hope.

He has also learned to not be afraid of pursuing possibilities that could benefit others. It’s a quality that has contributed to SS. Francis and Clare being the first Catholic school in the country to receive a national grant from an organization that promotes health and fitness.

This then is the story of someone who has been given a new way of looking at life, someone who is also trying to give a measure of thanks to the community that was there for him when he needed them most.

‘Is this really happening?’

Imel’s story begins on Labor Day weekend of 2014, just a few weeks after the start of another school year. Healthy throughout all his life, he had experienced tingling and numbness in his hands throughout that summer, and he had lost about 30 pounds, but he ignored the symptoms until that weekend.

“My wife Santina came home and found me in a state of complete exhaustion from running the vacuum around the house,” he recalls. “She said, ‘You need to get looked at.’ I went to an immediate care place, they took an X-ray, and the doctor said she didn’t like how it looked.”

A short time later, Imel was being rushed by ambulance to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he immediately began chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

For the next seven months, he endured a combination of chemo and radiation treatments, often thinking, “Is this really happening?”

At the same time, he couldn’t believe how the school community of SS. Francis and Clare was responding.

“I never asked for anything, and they gave me everything,” he says. “It was massive support. They went grocery shopping for us, gave gift cards and monetary donations, and helped with child care for [our daughter] Lucia [who was 3 at the time]. I received cards and texts and videos from the kids and the teachers. It was overwhelming love and support from the St. Francis and Clare community. What they did was so unbelievable. It was all kinds of goodness from the heart.”

He gets emotional while trying to describe how much that support meant to him.

“I don’t know if my family and I could have made it without their support,” he says softly. “It lets me know there are a lot of great people in the world. It makes me feel good to know my daughter is getting an education at a Catholic school like this. I get goose bumps and tears when I think about what they did.”

‘I knew God was with me’

The help and love from the school and parish community complemented the support and love he received from family and friends—creating the feeling that he was surrounded by “family” at every turn.

He raves about Denise Ware, his daughter’s pre-school teacher at the time of his sickness, praising Ware for helping then-3-year-old Lucia during that emotionally difficult period.

He mentions Deron Spink, a school dad who volunteered to take care of the physical education classes during the year that Imel missed.

And there’s a touch of awe in his voice when he recalls that his nurse during his time in the hospital was the mother of several children he has taught at SS. Francis and Clare.

“I felt God put her there for me,” he says about Katie Howe. “To go through the scariest moment of my life and have someone I know taking care of me, that doesn’t just happen by chance. That was pure divine intervention.”

That recollection led Imel to talk about the importance of his faith during his struggle with cancer: “My Catholic faith made a huge difference. It’s so comforting. Being in a fight like that, comfort was the best thing for me.”

Part of that comfort came from a gift that he received from Deacon Ron Pirau and his wife Linda, who are members of SS. Francis and Clare Parish.

“They gave me a clutch cross,” Imel says. “The cross is designed to sit right in your hand. I carried that with me everywhere. Whenever I grabbed it, I felt immediately at ease. It was very comforting to have it when I had chemo. I knew God was with me.”

Everyone’s prayers were answered in May of 2015 when Imel’s doctor told him the cancer was in remission.

“I have parents tell me that when their kids pray at night, they still mention me in their prayers,” he says. “I get teary-eyed thinking about that. I tell them to keep the prayers coming until I reach my five years in remission.”

That five-year landmark—often associated with the disease being cured—will be in 2020.

Yet ever since that good news in 2015, Imel has been searching for some way to thank the school community for everything they have done for him and his family.

He found one way this year.

‘No Catholic school had ever gotten it’

In his seven years at the school, Imel has always put the emphasis on helping students begin “a lifetime of fitness.”

“A lot of kids play sports or run around with their friends, which is great, but they’ve never learned to exercise with a purpose and still have fun. A little less screen time, and a little more active time. I’m trying to give them new and different ways to exercise so they lead a healthy lifestyle and learn about it at an early age.”

He also appreciated the benefits of exercise even more after he returned to it following his cancer going into remission.

He took advantage of a hospital exercise program for people who had been cancer patients.

Beyond the exercise, “it gave you time to talk with other survivors who knew what you had just gone through with chemo or radiation,” he says. “It’s really nice to touch base with those people.”

All those positive experiences with exercise tied in with a national grant that he learned was being offered by Project Fit America, an organization that promotes fitness education in schools.

“This was the first national grant I tried to get,” he says, recalling how he submitted the grant application in early 2018. “No Catholic school had ever gotten it. I didn’t think I’d get it. But I thought I’d give it a shot.”

Project Fit America followed up with telephone calls to Imel, seeking more information about the school, its facilities and the physical education program. Then came a conference call in May, connecting a representative of the organization with Imel and Betty Popp, the principal of SS. Francis and Clare School.

‘I stood up and pumped my fists in the air!’

The representative told them that their school was receiving a grant for nearly $25,000 for indoor and outdoor fitness equipment and curriculum material that stresses teamwork, leadership, sportsmanship and character development.

“It was complete joy—joy and shock,” Imel says. “I stood up and pumped my fists in the air!”

Popp shared in that excitement: “We were thrilled because we’re the first Catholic school in the United States to get that grant. It’s a big deal for us.”

The principal also noted that the school’s outpouring for Imel and his family displays the way the community rallies together when someone needs support.

“They stand behind anyone who needs support and prayers,” she says. “There was a lot of outreach for him and his family. He’s very much a team player. He’s always positive about the school. It’s been a good place for him to make a home.”

Imel is just glad he’s been able to contribute to making that home better.

“I knew with the amount of love and support that everyone gave my family that there was never going to be one way I could give back,” he says. “One thing I learned from all this is to not be afraid to go after things—like this grant. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone after it in the past. But this is one way of thanking everybody for everything they’ve done for me. This will be here for years and years to come.”

He talks about how the students are already enjoying and benefiting from the new equipment.

He mentions that school parents have told him that they’re using the equipment to exercise with their children.

Then he shares the thought that has been at the forefront of his life since this entire experience with cancer began.

“It truly is the little things that matter. With cancer, it makes you realize that the things you once thought were important—material things, how you look—aren’t.

“The people—your family, your friends, your co-workers—and your health, those are the things that matter.” †

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