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Three words put mom, children on roadside for Let's Ride

Mike Vanderhagen of Bird Island, right, and Ella Gustafson, 4, third from left, exchange smiles Monday after Nate Kopel, second from left, gave Ella and her brother, Zachary, 6, a short motorcycle ride. Kopel and Vanderhagen are helping with the Let's Ride Minnesota event. They stopped by the roadside stand that Susan Gustafson and her children set up alongside U.S. Highway 212 in Sacred Heart. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

SACRED HEART -- Three words explain why Susan Gustafson and her four young children can be found under the hot, summer sun in a roadside stand this week, hawking T-shirts and waving down motorcyclists on their way to the Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D.

"Genetic, terminal illness'' are the words on the report handed to her six days after the birth of her youngest child, Ella.

"I couldn't get past that line,'' said Gustafson.

The diagnosis of cystic fibrosis also explained why Ella's older brother Zachary had been so ill for the first 2½ years of his life.

Ella, now age 4, Zachary, 6, and siblings Ayden, 9 and Hayley, 10, are accompanying their mother as they promote the upcoming Let's Ride Minnesota event in memory of fallen veterans and to salute the families of all veterans Aug. 18 at the Renville County Fairgrounds in Bird Island. The event is being sponsored by the Tim Orth Memorial Foundation.

It recently announced that a portion of the proceeds will go to help the surviving family of Drake Bigler, the 5-month-old who was killed July 28 in a head-on crash near Starbuck.

Drake's mother, Heather, is a 2001 graduate of the Renville County West High School and her parents, Robin and Philip Smith, are residents of Sacred Heart. The tragic accident sent a shock through the community, said Gustafson.

She set up her stand Monday morning along U.S. Highway 212 on the east end of Sacred Heart. Mourners gathered at the First Lutheran Church in Marshall for the infant's funeral service in the afternoon.

The prospect that they could lose two of their children to cystic fibrosis -- a chronic lung disease -- remains a part of the daily lives for Susan and James Gustafson.

There is more than empathy in the Gustafson household for the Bigler family.

This is also about paying back, said Gustafson. The Tim Orth Memorial Foundation raised funds on their behalf in 2008 as they dealt with all of the costs associated with the treatment of Ella and Zachary. The community of Sacred Heart rallied as well to help the young family.

"So many people reached to us, that any chance we can have to give back ... '' said Gustafson.

Susan and her husband were also members of the Minnesota National Guard, and appreciate the "thank you'' to veterans that is at the heart of the Let's Ride Minnesota event.

There is no cure for cystic fibrosis, but there are continued advances in treatment and reasons to hope that a cure can be found, said Gustafson. Both Ella and Zach are managing as well as can be expected. "You wouldn't be able to pick them out of a crowd,'' said Gustafson.

By selling T-shirts and passing out fliers at the roadside this week, she hopes to make things a little better for the Biglers by bringing a big crowd to the Let's Ride Minnesota event. "If we all did a little bit, all pitched in and helped out,'' she said.

She intends to keep the roadside stand through this week and weekend. She will move the stand to Apol's Harley-Davidson in Raymond on Wednesday and Thursday, and return to Sacred Heart for the remainder of the week. Information on Let's Ride Minnesota can be found on the web at

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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