One Rochester Family's Story of Love, Loss, Faith and 'New Days'
One year after the release of their heartfelt memoir, "The Color of Rain," Michael and Gina Spehn are looking to grow their cancer support foundation.
Gina and Michael Spehn are having a party.
There will be dinner and drinks and live music and dancing. There also will be infinite tributes — both the small, silent ones and the big, applause-inducing sorts — to the two party guests of honor.
But those two guests will be there only in memory.
Matt Kell and Cathy Spehn were Gina and Michael's first spouses. They died of cancer two months apart in late 2005 and early 2006. Through their shared grief, their surviving spouses, Gina and Michael, found each other. They eventually married, blended their families (cue the Brady Bunch theme song) and started a foundation, based in their hometown of Rochester, in Matt and Cathy's honor.
Which brings us back to the party. Proceeds from the second annual Evening Under the Stars at Meadow Brook Hall on Sunday night will benefit the New Day Foundation for Families, the Spehn family's charity that helps young families affected by cancer.
"We know firsthand that the help of others and the love of God bring hope for every 'new day,' " reads part of the mission for the foundation.
The bestseller with a Rochester setting
"This is a true story."
That's how Gina and Michael begin the tale of their journey, published as The Color of Rain last October. The book, which became a New York Times bestseller, was released in paperback this month.
(Read the first two chapters of the book here.)
The book tells of Matt Kell's battle with leiomyosarcoma, which ended his life on Christmas Day (the heart-wrenching hour-by-hour narrative of Matt's last day was something that Gina wrote as therapy; "that was about me needing to remember and recount it," she said. "I would write it every night.")
When Matt was dying, he told Gina he wanted her to find a "good Christian man" and marry him; he also made a video message to their two young sons urging them to respect and accept any man that their mom might want to someday marry.
Through a series of coincidences, that good Christian man would be Michael Spehn, whose wife, Cathy, got out of the car after picking her three kids up from school one day with a headache she described as a "vice." Three weeks later, she died from the headache's root cause: an advanced brain cancer.
When Cathy was dying, she urged Michael to call a mom friend of hers named Gina Kell who she knew had recently lost her husband to cancer. Like Cathy and Michael, Gina and Matt had young children. She'll help you, Cathy told her husband.
And so the story goes.
Rochester and beyond
If you live in Rochester or Rochester Hills, you're likely only one or two degrees of separation from any of the seven members of the Spehn family: parents Michael and Gina or children Charlotte, Jack, Drew, Sam and Dan.
Or maybe you've seen the atrium at St. John's Lutheran Church, which they helped design and which plays prominently into their memoir of love, loss and faith.
Though their story is woven into the local Rochester community, the mission of their foundation has much broader goals: Gina said she hopes to have chapters of the foundation in every state in five years.
Since 2007, the New Day Foundation for Families has given financial help to more than 150 children or parents. Through a partnership with Beaumont Hospitals, families facing cancer are referred to the foundation for help with utility bills or other monetary needs. The foundation sends kids to grief camps and can negotiate mortgages for families facing medical debts. They put together care packages for groceries or gas cards or school supplies.
And then there are the incalculable number of people they have helped just by listening.
"Some people just want to talk," Gina said. "They want to be known and understood in their grief."
Since the publication of The Color of Rain last fall, Gina, 43, and Michael, 49, have been interviewed by journalists across the country.
They hung out with Kathie Lee Gifford on the set of the Today show. They were featured on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and talked with Mike Huckabee on FOX News.
But in their daily lives, they are the parents of five kids ages 11 to 16 and have dedicated their lives to working toward a cause they believe in.
Sunday night's gala, and a golf tournament the next day, are evidence of that work. The gala, hosted by Matt Kell's friend, Fox Sports Detroit's Mickey York, will feature silent and live auctions to support the foundation. Tickets are $150 a couple. Gina encouraged the community to attend for a fun night out to support the cause that has guided her family's lives.
"We are an all-volunteer organization, and so the gala and everything else we do goes right to the families we help," Gina said.