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Published April 06, 2013, 11:40 PM

Guardian Angels: Family tells story of becoming guardians of cousin's daughter

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - In late 2008, young Katie Minge was on Lori Viger’s mind and heart. Katie’s mom, Shelly Minge, a longtime friend of Lori’s, had battled cancer for years. Now Katie’s dad, Bob Minge, a cousin of Lori’s husband, Don Viger, had been diagnosed with cancer, too.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - In late 2008, young Katie Minge was on Lori Viger’s mind and heart.

Katie’s mom, Shelly Minge, a longtime friend of Lori’s, had battled cancer for years. Now Katie’s dad, Bob Minge, a cousin of Lori’s husband, Don Viger, had been diagnosed with cancer, too.

Lori asked Don, “Would you ever consider taking Katie in?”

It was a weighty question. Lori wanted her to stay with family, and felt like there was room for one more. But the couple already had four children, all older than Katie.

While there was no answer that day, the question planted a seed in the Vigers. So, not long after, when Bob called Don and asked the same thing, it wasn’t out of the blue.

“I think it’s God’s hand at work,” Lori says.

Bob and Don grew up together, and Lori knew Shelly from her church growing up. They spent holidays together – Fourth of July at a relative’s lake cabin, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with extended family – but weren’t particularly close.

Each couple had questions for the other. The Minges worried about marriage stability. It was important to them that Katie be confirmed in their Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

The Vigers wondered what expectations the Minges had for Katie’s education. They asked about dreams and wishes for her life.

“We wanted a feel for the big decisions,” Don says.

“It’s such an honor, but a huge responsibility, carrying out somebody’s wishes,” Lori says.

Often, agreeing to such a request is a hypothetical discussion based on the improbable. Not for the Vigers.

“It was probably very likely and we knew that,” Lori says.

Even still, “You never think it will come to fruition,” Don says.

Bob died in April 2009. His death was particularly hard on Katie, then 9, Don says. Shelly’s longtime illness meant Bob had provided much of her day-to-day care.

“That’s all Katie knew growing up, her mom was sick,” he says.

Shelly continued to rebound and regress. In 2011, shortly after the Vigers’ oldest child and only daughter married, her health took a turn for the worse.

At that time, Katie would stay at different friends’ houses. Lori felt they should step in, as the chosen guardians, but Katie wasn’t comfortable with them yet.

Extended family members started to help out more, providing meals and washing clothes, Lori says.

Lori started organizing people to stay with Shelly and Katie at night, Don says.

In October 2011, Shelly entered a Hospice facility in Fergus Falls and Katie moved in with the Vigers.

Lori struggled to figure out her role then, she says, being a caregiver to Katie while Shelly was still alive.

“I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries,” Lori says.

She made sure Katie visited her mom every afternoon. But living at the Vigers’ home south of Fergus Falls provided stability for Katie, and allowed her to get to know the family.

It also allowed for a more natural transition after Shelly’s death Jan. 3, 2012.

On Feb. 14, 2012, a court hearing made the guardianship official. No one contested the Minges’ choice.

More than a year later, Katie, now 13 and in seventh grade, seems at home with the Vigers.

While she doesn’t call Lori and Don “Mom” and “Dad,” she has referred to them that way, and told people that the Vigers’ eighth- and ninth-grade sons are her brothers, Don and Lori say.

Kristi Wentworth, a cousin to Don and Bob who also lives in Fergus Falls, says Katie has bloomed since living with the Vigers.

“To those of us who sit and watch from a distance, it affirms she’s in the right place. The right decisions were made,” Wentworth says.

Katie plays soccer and cross-country skis. She’s in choir and band. Don jokes she “exercises her thumbs,” texting and listening to her iPod.

They’ve gone camping as a family, which Katie had never done. They also like to play cards, something she did with her parents a lot, she says.

Katie plans to volunteer at the local hospital. And she’s started confirmation classes. The family alternates Sundays at the Minges’ church and their Nazarene congregation.

“We always feel God will provide,” Don says.

Wentworth says it was amazing how the community and entire family stepped up to help a girl orphaned by cancer, especially the Vigers. She describes them as “incredible” for opening their home and accepting Katie.

“They are just guardian angels. They have just been phenomenal,” she says.

“She’s just part of the family,” Lori says of Katie.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556.

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