Inspiring Okeechobee: Vanessa Villalpando illustrates a mother’s love

OKEECHOBEE — This week’s inspiration is all about the power of faith and the unfailing love of a mother. I reached out to Vanessa’s sister, Elisa Rockwell and friend, Elizabeth Broadrick for help with this story. I have known Vanessa for many years and her ability to smile through adversity has always provided me encouragement. If you have ever been a patient at Florida Community Health Centers, and had the privilege of having Vanessa care for you, she treats you like family! I think that her story is best told by her sister and friend.

Elisa Rockwell, Vanessa’s sister said, “Vanessa moved to Okeechobee to give her son a better life.” She continues, “… her son was in preschool.

She worked very hard to provide for him by herself; then when Lexi was born her life changed forever. Lexi was born with cancer and as soon as she was stable, Lexi and her mom were flown to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis. Lexi’s little body couldn’t handle everything that was going on, and Vanessa thought she had lost Lexi several times.” Lexi was and still is a fighter though, and each time she was revived. Elisa notes, “Vanessa never gave up and stood strong in her faith, never leaving Lexi’s side.” While Vanessa was in Memphis, her young son stayed with his Aunt Elisa, which was difficult for both mom and son. Elisa continues, “I remember her saying, I’ll probably lose everything I have; but those are material things and are replaceable. My baby is not replaceable!”

Vanessa Villalpando illustrates a mother’s love.

For Vanessa and Lexi, St. Jude’s became Vanessa’s permanent home for a while. Elisa noted, “…she [Vanessa] learned how to do everything the nurses did and could tell you everything that Lexi needed and at what times!”

Elisa continues, “When we thought Lexi was on her way to recovering and being able to come home she got an infection that was going to her brain. They didn’t give us much hope. I remember then telling my sister to start making arrangements, which was the hardest thing … but there was no ‘give up’ in my sister. Lexi inherited that trait from Vanessa.

They operated on Lexi and had to remove part of her eyelid but that kept the infection from going to her brain. Vanessa missed her little boy so much she asked me to bring him to her, so I flew with him to Memphis, Tenn. Not only was Vanessa taking care of her sick baby alone, she was also taking care of her preschool aged son.”

Vanessa, recounts sister Elisa, “… always said that our babies were gifts from God and He let us borrow them … It’s our job to love them with our whole hearts and do whatever we had to do to take care of His little angels, because you never know when He’s going to want them back!!!”

Elisa calls her niece “Bad to the Bone” and it’s not because Lexi is bad in any way, it’s just that she is a fighter.

Elisa has not been without her own crisis, as she lost an adult child a year ago, to lupus, while battling the disease herself. Elisa notes, “When we talk to each other at night we always tell each other: sis we need to give it all to God. So, that’s what we do, as sisters, talk about keeping the faith no matter the outcome. Without love, hope, and most of all faith, we have nothing.”

Elisa concludes, “I love my sister so much … I know Lexi will come through this, because of the fight and determination in her, and most of all her mom, the lessons Vanessa has instilled in her daughter to have faith.”

Friend Elizabeth Broadrick, recently found out that her very young son has cancer. Here is what she had to say about Vanessa: “Vanessa and I go way back as I have been friends with her family for more than 15 years. We call each other family. To see her at work daily was just a booster for our friendship. We also attend the same church.”

Elizabeth continues, “When my son was diagnosed, she called me from work as soon as she heard, to give me the best advice: to keep FAITH.

Vanessa came to visit us during our first hospital stay to bring necessities that others might would not think about bringing, as she knew firsthand what it’s like to stay in a hospital for weeks at a time. She brought laundry detergent, 12 packs of soda, lots of chips and snacks and even a beer! That’s right, just one, you know – just in case.”

Just a few weeks later, Vanessa’s daughter Lexi (who has a 16th birthday this week), a student at Okeechobee High School, began complaining of headaches. A trip to the hospital revealed something was wrong, very wrong. Lexi and her mother were flown to Memphis, Tenn. Lexi and her mother were given the news that Lexi has a brain tumor. Lexi had cancer at birth, and this was a devastating blow. Doctors have been able to remove most the new tumor and found that it was not cancerous.

Elizabeth noted, “When I found out Lexi was headed back to Memphis for an unknown brain tumor, I cried. You see, childhood cancers are sneaky and our kids will always have to keep an ‘eye out’ for potential secondary cancers because of the treatments they get.”

She continues, “Vanessa is so strong and has a way with words that can soothe your soul. I, on the other hand, am not that great. I didn’t know what to say to her other than I was here for her and Lexi and I pray daily for them. We’ve had several late-night phone calls and texts that always end up with her making me feel better. I wish I could do the same for her. She always tells me ‘God’s got this.’ I trust her and His word. I know that He is the healer and He will see our children and our families through this storm. She truly is an amazing Godly woman.”

Vanessa was one of the first people to show up at our home in those dreary, sad December days, offering words of encouragement, help and love. It is nearly impossible to put into words Vanessa’s inspirational acts, as she is one of those people that is just “there” when the crisis occurs. As for Lexi, she is still hospitalized in Memphis, with no prospective date of return to Florida, but I am certain Vanessa will be by her side every moment of every day. Vanessa’s and Lexi’s unfailing love, strength, determination, and their ability to share their faith is what inspires me this Sunday, and many other days.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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