Canyon Lake offers ‘simple life’ for cancer survivor and wife

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Kathy and Gary at the ribbon-cutting for their new Farmers Insurance office in Murrieta. Photo provided by kathy Veenhuizens

In October 2011, Canyon Lake resident Gary Veenhuizen got news that no one wants to hear, “You have cancer.” His first thought was, “This is not supposed to happen when you turn 60.”

Gary and his wife Kathy had been living the dream: building a business that supported their family for over 30 years, and just finishing construction on a new home, lovingly crafted after years of planning. Their four children were now adults.

The happy couple was supposed to be preparing for their “Golden Years”on that October day prior to their 38th wedding anniversary. Instead, the doctor’s words ripped through them like a jagged knife.

Gary was at the doctor’s office because of a swollen tonsil that wasn’t responding to treatment. Tonsils had caused problems all of his life, but this was different. This time his inflamed tonsil was the canary in the coal mine. A biopsy following a tonsillectomy revealed cancer.

Gary and Kathy were at a point in life where they had been before; they would need to meet adversity together. Gary remembers, “It was a turning point. We had been in a headlong, carefree rush into the future with no sense of mortality.” Questions flooded his mind, “Is this the end of my life? God, I thought you called me to do something. Are you pulling the plug now?”

Kathy’s thoughts were desperately searching for similar answers, “What happens if this is terminal and I have to continue on without my husband?”

A PET scan soon showed up to ten lymph nodes with cancerous activity. The doctor’s diagnosis was Stage III lymphoma. The treatment protocol would be chemo, but no radiation. The plan called for eight treatments. Gary was working on his dissertation for a Doctor of Ministry degree in Nov 2011 while still in the initial stages of treatment. Remarkably, after just four treatments Gary was moved into maintenance mode because his body was responding well. His cancer was declared in remission in 2012.

It was time to close one chapter of life and open another.

As the couple shared recently, “We never lost hope but we both saw the need for an immediate course correction in our lifestyle.”

A life change. An end to stress. A different way of living.

Following a new imperative, the Veenhuizens sold their 30-year old painting business in 2013, as well as their dream home. They embarked on a new life, moving first to the Oregon coast and then to Canyon Lake early in 2014, to be closer to grandkids in Long Beach. Gary leveraged his three decades of experience in the painting industry in the paint department of Home Depot. Still, the Veenhuizens felt they were not doing what they were supposed to be doing.

Late that first year in Canyon Lake a visiting friend persuaded the couple that their personalities, their integrity, their attention to detail and their empathy for people made them ideal for the insurance business. Every aspect of this potential new career path resonated with Gary and Kathy. They could serve others, helping them get the best and most appropriate safety net protection for their lives. It was a natural extension of all of their best qualities.

Within months of that fateful visit the couple moved to Virginia to train with a large insurance company, returning to Canyon Lake in early 2016. Determined to settle down and build a new life they quickly engaged in many community activities, including the Canyon Lake Chamber of Commerce, Travel Club, Tuesday Work Group, Woman’s Club and Yacht Club.

Gary working on cart path repair with the Canyon Lake Tuesday Work Group.

On June 1, 2016, the Veenhuizens opened their own agency in Murrieta for a global insurance firm.

Now, helping others prepare for life’s unexpected twists and turns has become their greatest aim. A rapidly growing portfolio of clients attests to their personal attention and care, and the couple recently received an award for being top producers.

Until the horrible news of 2011, Gary Veenhuizen’s life had been somewhat uneventful.

The year was 1951. It was a cold November day when Gary, the first of three siblings,  was born in a military hospital in the state of Washington. His father was stationed in Europe in the U.S. Air Force.

After Veenhuizen’s father returned from military service the young family moved around – first to a small town in Washington state, then to Denver and Tacoma and eventually San Francisco. Each time the family relocated to a new place it was to help start and build churches. “Dad played the trumpet and led the choir at church, and mother played the violin,” remembers Gary. Gary’s father’s profession was meat cutter, which supported the family while they labored to help churches in each new city.

In 1966, the Veenhuizen family visited a church in Utah and 15 year old Gary met 12 year old Kathy Rael, a meeting that would change both of their lives. They shared a similar religious background, but lived hundreds of miles apart.

After their first meeting the young couple began a long distance relationship by mail.

Gary graduated from high school in 1969, and his family moved once again, this time from San Francisco to Oregon. Gary was determined to not let Kathy get away. Engaged in July of 1973, the young couple married just three months later.

The newlyweds began their married life together in Portland with Gary attending community college while working as a painter apprentice. Less than a year later, the ambitious young man realized that he could be successful in the painting business, and so he left school and threw himself into building a painting company.

Their first child, Jennifer, was born a few years into their marriage. In a terrible blow to their new family, the young couple were saddened to learn that their young daughter had a chromosome defect that would affect her cognitive skills. It was the first hard bump in their marriage, but they committed to loving and caring for their daughter wholeheartedly and working through this situation together.

Over the next ten years, the Veenhuizen family continued to grow, adding two more daughters and a son. Fortunately, none of the other children had the genetic defect.

By the late 1990s their painting company was enjoying $1.2 million in annual sales with 23 employees.

That still wasn’t enough for Gary. He continued to feel that there was something more that was expected of him. After a hiatus of many years, Gary returned to college to finish his undergraduate degree, and then enrolled in a nearby seminary to earn a master’s degree.

During this time the painting business was practically running itself, with employees doing the heavy lifting of keeping customers happy and projects on track. The Veenhuizens were wrapping up remodeling their 5,500 square foot home, running the business, and serving in their church. Following his convictions, Gary took on the additional duties of serving as the pastor of a small, struggling church, a task that consumed 15-20 hours of his week while project supervisors at their painting business kept processes and systems running smoothly and customers happy.

“In 2008 we had finished building our new dream home,” Gary recalls. “We were building from scratch, downsizing from our large home to a much smaller house, a very contemporary-style house with design touches that we had always wanted. The custom 8’ tall doors were made from Sapele (African Mahogany). The door casings and baseboards were the same color as the walls but in oil finish. Walnut was used extensively for cabinets, the fireplace mantle, and even the cap on the staircase railing. The railing was brushed steel. The stair treads were white oak. The bar top was made out of Peruvian marble and Peruvian travertine was used on the fireplace. Everything was hand selected and it turned out exactly as we had imagined it.”

The house was a canvas for their artwork, but more than that, it was the expression of Gary’s lifelong love of working with wood. He had developed and honed his skills as a craftsman making beautiful furniture and cabinets, and the new home reflected those interests.

Gary’s creativity, attention to detail and follow through had yielded a wonderful new home lovingly crafted for the couple’s future. All of their hard work had paid off.

Then in an instant, in the doctor’s office, life changed. And once again, the couple met the news with resolve to see it through together.

Through their ups and downs the Veenhuizens have learned that when you get a wakeup call in life you face many choices, but the best, the most life affirming direction recognizes that life is short and people are important.

As Gary said recently, “Working hard has never bothered me. I have always wanted to help others. Now I realize that I have a mission, I have a call on my life. There’s a reason why I’m still here and it’s to serve people.”

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