Monticello couple supports orphans, adoptive families after loss of infant daughter

| Jessica Weinberger | February 21, 2017 | 0 Comments

Front row, from left, Valencia and Maebelina Witschen hold a picture of Laurencia, Valencia’s twin sister who died at birth in 2013. Other members of the family are, back row, from left, Paulina, Gabriella, Matt, Katrina, Anabella and Wyatt. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Each year, Matt and Katrina Witschen host more than 150 friends and family members for an Oktoberfest party at their hobby farm outside Monticello. And each year, they’ve quietly placed a bucket out for party-goers to donate to a worthy case, whether it’s a local family facing a cancer diagnosis or an organization that supports orphans or children with special needs.

They knew they could do more, and they did, after a personal tragedy compelled them to start their own nonprofit.

In March 2013, Katrina learned she was expecting identical twin girls, their sixth and seventh children and their second set of twins. Doctors discovered that the babies were in the same amniotic sac and found that one had anencephaly, a serious birth defect that would prevent her from surviving more than a few minutes or hours outside of the womb.

“The doctor explained it to us, but you go into this denial,” said Katrina, 42, a patent attorney and parishioner of St. Michael in St. Michael. “There’s no way that you’re telling me that my baby will not live. No way.”

Through this challenging diagnosis and pregnancy, the family renewed their commitment to life in all forms, which motivated them to start a nonprofit in their daughter’s honor to support orphans and adoptive families.

Every life has value

“For the first time in my life, I felt completely helpless,” remembered Matt, 45, a construction manager, about that fateful 10-week prenatal visit. “There wasn’t anything I could do for my little girl. I couldn’t fix her. I couldn’t put a Band-Aid on, give her a hug and tell her that everything was going to be OK.”

They named their daughter Laurencia Rachel, a nod to her godmother and Katrina’s sister, Laura Nielsen, with the root of Laurencia meaning “victory” and Rachel meaning “lamb.” They named her twin sister Valencia, which means “healthy” and “strong.”

While overwhelmed by the reality of Laurencia’s life expectancy, in addition to the risk of chord entanglement in utero, they immediately bypassed an option that would sacrifice her life in the womb for assurances of Valencia’s safety. Weighing the value of each child’s life and determining the right course of action could have been difficult for some, but for this pro-life family, it was simple.

“Every life has value no matter what that looks like, and we can’t put a value on that. It’s just infinite,” said Katrina, who has appeared in promotional videos for Prenatal Partners for Life, a Maple Grove-based organization that supports families facing an adverse diagnosis for an unborn child.

The twins were born at 32 weeks gestation Aug. 26, 2013, a day the couple regards as holy and sacred. Laurencia was born first, and a sense of peace filled the delivery room as they found her heart was beating. Laura held her in her arms and baptized the newborn with her tears. Valencia soon followed, and as they placed the two babies together for a photo, their hands crossed, and Laurencia’s heart stopped.

“It all tested our faith in a way we couldn’t have even imagined,” Katrina said.

Victory over death

In the months that followed, the family navigated their complex grief journey while prayerfully considering ways to transform their raw emotion into action. That spring, they began to revisit their original plans for transforming their next Oktoberfest celebration into an official fundraiser.

“We all felt so helpless,” said Laura, 44, who — with much of Katrina’s extended family — also attends St. Michael. “We could pray and pray until our rosaries wore out, but it wouldn’t fix what had happened with Laurencia.”

While neither Katrina nor her five siblings — who, among them have 32 children — have adopted, they decided to form a nonprofit to support orphaned children and adoptive families. They see the care of children as an extension of their call to pro-life ministry and a way to honor Laurencia’s life.

“There’s nothing more that I could do for her here on earth,” Katrina explained. “She doesn’t need any of that because she’s in heaven where she doesn’t need anything else. But there is something we can do for those kids that need something.”

They named the organization Laurencia’s Victory to show that even through death, Laurencia was victorious and now reunited with her creator. They completed the paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and began planning their first event — a 5K race they affectionately call the L.O.V.E. Run, held in August near the twins’ birthday.

Now in its third year, the L.O.V.E. (Laurencia’s Orphans Victory Event) Run has drawn nearly 175 runners, including 50 children, who complete the race before singing “Happy Birthday” and enjoying a slice of cake in Laurencia’s honor.

The majority of the funds raised go toward $2,000 grants to adoptive families for assistance with adoption costs. The family uses any remaining funds for individual needs, such as hearing aids or specialty medical equipment, that come to their attention through social media or their network of orphanages around the world.

$10 of every $25 race registration also benefits Mustard Seed, a mission in Jamaica that provides care to children and adults with disabilities, as well as young mothers in crisis.

Father Peter Richards, St. Michael’s pastor, said that the mission of Laurencia’s Victory flows from the call to serve the larger Catholic family and the message of the Church.

“Their work ties into the message of the cross and resurrection,” said Father Richards, who blessed the Witschen family in the hospital. “The crosses we experience can be turned into new life.”

Guided by the Holy Spirit

This year, Laurencia’s Victory has provided grants to four families to assist with adoption costs. To qualify, families must complete a short form on the nonprofit’s website, demonstrate financial need, have a child already referred to them and complete a home study.

Becky Wangerin, 37, and her husband, Eugene, 49, were overjoyed to receive assistance from Laurencia’s Victory. They have five children, including three girls whom they adopted — Alina, 9, who came from Ukraine in 2010, with another daughter, Anna, following from Ukraine in 2012. Their youngest, Zoey, came from China in January 2016. Each daughter has cerebral palsy and other medical needs.

“Getting the grant was amazing,” said Becky, a homemaker in Becker whose husband serves with the National Guard. “We were really struggling, and their generous help took a huge financial burden off our shoulders.”

The Witschen family and the many family members and friends who support Laurencia’s Victory wish they could cover all adoption costs for the families, but for now, they are humbled by the contributions they can make. While respect life initiatives often center on protecting the unborn, they hope that Catholics and non-Catholics alike expand that call to include all innocent life.

“Everyone deserves a home. Everyone deserves the love of a family. More importantly, everyone deserves life,” Katrina said. “Any child, no matter what their disability, no matter their station in life, has the right to life and to be cherished.”

Learn more about Laurencia’s Victory at LaurenciasVictory.org.

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