Highland News Leader

Know Your Neighbor: Traci Riechmann

There are clubs for parents who have lost children, but no one wants a membership because the dues are way too high. And for parents of a child with a debilitating illness, the stressors are grandiose.

That is why Traci Riechmann founded Leaps of Love — LOL — in Highland in 2010. Because of her family’s encounters with cancer, she has learned first-hand just how devastating the toll can be and she wanted to orchestrate an organization that can and does take a holistic approach to childhood cancer and its late effects.

Traci was born Sept. 5, 1968, in Highland, the middle child of three born to Robert and Dianne Zobrist. As a youngster, Traci played house and dreamt of growing up and becoming a mother. She made tiny houses out of Popsicle sticks and played football with her older brother, Bryan.

She affectionately remembers how Bryan would tease her, telling her “you should just pack your bags and move away; nobody here wants you.” Obviously, she did not take him seriously and Traci is very close to her siblings.

In high school, Traci first met Dana Riechmann, who was two years older.

“I didn’t like him at all at first,” said Traci. “Plus, I was interested in someone else. One day he saw me sitting on a swing crying. Wanting to know why I was in tears, I told him, ‘my boyfriend won’t kiss me.’ Well, he took care of that; he kissed me.”

They married April 12, 1985.

Traci graduated Highland High School in 1986 and began working for her father-in-law at Riechmann’s Trucking, where Dana was a truck driver.

When Traci was about 21, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and informed she had approximately nine months to live. Traci said her mom was very stoic, but remembers vividly how the family was devastated. She passed away in October 1990.

Only seven years later, cancer came calling on Traci’s family again. Her little sister, Terry, was told she had a deadly desmoid tumor in her leg. By now, Traci was a mother to two, Brady and Nichole, and she came to realize how the entire family is affected when only one person has a malady.

The physicians were able to successfully treat Terry, but Traci was now seeing the whole picture of what cancer can do to a family and just how deeply siblings and other relatives are impacted when their loved one is fighting a terminal disease.

In conversations with her dad, Traci learned of a program known as “His Kids,” an acronym for Happiness is Serving Kids in Distress Situations. Traci checked into it and ultimately became the organization’s camp director from 1999 through 2009.

Leap of faith & a frog

In 2009 Traci was contacted by Children’s Hospital in St. Louis with a request for her to develop a program to educate families and entities about cognitive and physical disabilities of children resulting from what is termed “late effects.”

According to Livestrong Cancer Navigations, “The day cancer treatment ends, a new chapter begins. Some survivors may leave cancer behind and continue life with few or no health problems. Others might have ongoing physical challenges. Some of these might be due to late affects, also called after effects, because of cancer treatment.”

Traci was uncertain whether or not she could undertake a task of such magnitude. She said she decided to spend a bit of time deliberating and a lot of time praying. A close friend knowing of the decision Traci faced, gave her a stuffed animal, which happened to be a cuddly green frog. On the attached label were the words, “Fully Rely on God.”

Traci said she decided to take a leap of faith and because a frog leaps and Traci was taking a leap of faith, she arrived at a name for this new venture, “Leaps of Love,” with a frog being their symbol. Due to her counseling experiences with His Kids, Traci had seen the need for LOL.

“We work with several cancer survivor clinics throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area to empower patients after their treatments to optimize their health and deepen their understanding of their condition,” said Traci.

“Many people do not realize that even though the children may be surviving longer, their chances of health problems due to their treatments increase. Problems like heart damage due to radiation therapy, effects on growth, thyroid dysfunction, fertility and obesity. Brain function and academic achievement has been confirmed as lowered due to radiation on the young brain. Chemotherapy damages normal cells as well as cancer cells.”

Assisting both the patient and entire family

LOL’s focus is to engage support for families affected by childhood brain tumors and families who are dealing with late effects of childhood cancer treatments. But LOL does more than assist the patient. They also ascertain the needs of the entire family.

“I’ve seen siblings of patients become withdrawn because the parents are having to expend all of their time, energy, efforts and emotions on the child who is ill,” said Traci.

“So our goal at LOL is to help families engage together and give them hope, strength and encouragement to endure the challenges everyone in the family faces. We have family retreats, social events, outings, workshops and more in order to give these families the opportunity to strengthen their lives with the support, wisdom and encouragement of others who have experienced similar scenarios to theirs.”

If and when all medical procedures have been unsuccessful and the worst happens and a child succumbs and dies, Traci and her team make certain they stay tightly connected to the grieving parents by arranging a Good Grief Getaway.

‘Laugh, cry and pillow fights’

“We have the use of a nine-bedroom home in the Lake of the Ozarks where we take multiple couples to address their grief,” said Traci.

“We laugh, we cry and even have pillow fights. Each person grieves differently and we’re there to share this time with them.” They also have a shuttle bus to transport families to cemeteries.”

Who pays what must be a hefty bill for all these services?

“Generous individuals and businesses and our fundraisers,” said Traci.

Traci, who is founder and president, along with her team, receive no monetary compensation whatsoever for the many services they provide.

Additional information about contributing or volunteering is available online at info@leapsoflove.org or by calling 618-410-7212.