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Upcoming Widows’ Retreat Designed to Equip, Educate and Inspire

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Susan VandePol No. 1-1Susan VandePol: “Widows find out they have a calling.” When area widows gather in October for a retreat at the Maranatha Conference Grounds in Muskegon, Susan VandePol will be there to encourage them to embrace a new path in their lives.

"They can expect to be equipped, educated and inspired by their biblical calling," said VandePol, whose husband of 22 years, Los Angeles firefighter Bob Ortega, died in 2005.

Finding their calling

"I start Friday night and close the weekend on Sunday morning on what God's Word says about widows and their place," said VandePol. "Their (widows) stories are so painful to hear but when widows find out they have a calling and take that protocol to their church. They grab onto that."

Since her husband's duty-related death, VandePol is helping families whose first-responder family members died cope with their loss.

She founded Families of the Fallen, a support protocol for families of first responders, and Life After Breath, also a protocol intended chiefly for churches and faith-based organizations to care for widows so fulfill their calling.

Both protocols are written from the perspective of a widow that provide insights into the often unspoken vulnerabilities widows face. The Families of the Fallen protocol gives grieving firefighters a realistic way to express their grief and help them heal, return to work in a more resilient manner and alleviate much of the stress of facing future trauma.


VandePol's Families of the Fallen protocol eventually was unanimously accepted at the International Association of Firefighters Convention in 2006, and is now being used across the country. It is endorsed by firefighters and experts in the fields of grief, crisis, trauma and PTSD.

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VandePol also is the author of "Life After Breath" and is a certified in grief, crisis, and trauma counseling, grief coaching, master life coaching, individual crisis intervention, victim response and basic and family mediation.

Her speaking engagements include women's retreats and conferences, and was a keynote at the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation World Congress, the Connecticut State Firefighters Association Convention, and the Honor Guard at the International Association of Firefighters Memorial.

VandePol, who has since remarried and now lives in Holland, Mich., discovered through the years that the anguish that enveloped her has been pruned and her life has blossomed.

Volunteered to rescue two men

Ortega was 48 years old in 2001 when he entered a three-foot opening of an industrial furnace that contained chemicals in the pit, so he could pull two men slumped at the bottom of it.

Neither man made it out alive.

Ortega did not wear a hazmat suit when he volunteered to rescue the men.

Eventually, VandePol's husband developed symptoms that was diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a motor neuron disease better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, that causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. He died in 2005 with the couple's three homeschooled children at his side.

A day etched in memory

It's a day that remains etched in VandePol's memory.

"We all took care of him and God just got bigger and bigger," recalled VandePol. "He did far more in us and through us."

"I just knew. I called the boys and we sat around him on the bed and I put a hand on him. I touched his hand and said, 'This is Samuel and this is Benjamin and this is Jennifer.' And my youngest son who was about to turn 14 said, 'It's OK dad. You have fought long enough. It's OK.' I started singing, 'I love you Lord, and I lift my voice, to worship you oh my Lord.

"And then he was gone."


What: Life After Breath Widow's Treat
When: Oct. 18 and 20]
Where: Maranatha Conference Grounds4759 Lake Harbor Rd., Norton Shores
More info: http://bit.ly/LifeAfterBreathRetreat



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Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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