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Omaha Magazine

Gen O: A Guide in the Dark

Dec 27, 2022 08:23AM ● By Chris Hatch
Luke Woosley smiling at the camera.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

To hear Luke Woosley tell it, his family reached shore around five years ago.

They found it after much time adrift—months treading water in the riptide of his brother Bo’s second year of life.

Guided out from those stormy days, and reflecting on the times he and his large family were left heaving and reeling over rough waves, Woosley is now ready to man the light to safety himself. 
This is the story of The Lighthouse that guided him, and of someone ready to shine its beacon for the next family in need.

Woosley, an Omaha native, was just a sophomore in high school when his family began grappling with Bo’s rare form of brain cancer (Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumors, or ATRT) and the overwhelming emotions that came with it. That’s when his Mom heard about a program designed to guide families in similar plights.

The Lighthouse Family Retreat is a faith-based nonprofit designed to help families with children fighting cancer. With offices in Atlanta and Florida, the group provides week-long retreats at various resorts for families in addition to counseling, therapy, and perhaps just as valuable, a place for pediatric cancer patients and survivors to find a small piece of normalcy. 

“My mom kind of was just like, ‘Hey, I heard about this really cool thing, and I think it would be really good for all of us.’ She pitched it more as a vacation, less like ‘we need this help,’” Woosley said. “Our family was doing okay. Bo had gotten out of treatment, thankfully, so we thought he was going to make it. But she knew the strain and toil that it had put on my siblings and I, and also my stepdad.”

Woosley was heavily involved in submitting his family’s application for the retreat, but still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect after they were chosen as one of 12 families to attend.

Upon arrival at the Tops’l Beach and Racquet Resort, a gorgeous resort located on the Gulf of Mexico in Destin, Florida, Woosley said, “There’s 130 people standing, waiting for you, smiling and waving. They’re super excited, super exuberant. It was very overwhelming, but an hour in, I saw my little siblings playing with other kids, my parents were talking to other people their age for the first time in God knows when.”

The impact on his family was both immediate and profound. Having struggled against the current for so long, Woosley enjoyed the prevailing calm and sense of freedom the retreat provided. Forward motion felt good.

“The biggest thing I noticed was the dynamic between my parents—my mom and my stepdad. You could feel that they weren’t able to invest time into their relationship or their marriage. Bo and the other kids were always the No. 1 priority,” he said. “Coming out of that week, just the love that they saw for each other, that then kind of trickled down, even between me and my siblings.”

Woosley was overjoyed to see his family, unencumbered. He caught a glimpse of them just…being. Breakthroughs, tears, carefree parties—all occurred in the span of a life-altering week.
“Like, when you go through something hard like that, you don’t understand that what you’re going through is difficult in the moment. Like, that’s just life,” Woosley said. “[The retreat] made us love each other whole-er.”

“This was the first time, as a family, that we had collectively taken a sigh of relief,” Woosley reflected.

A shift had taken place internally as well. Even after he put the oceanside memories of that retreat behind him, marveling at Bo’s recovery and growth, there was something calling him, a pull somewhere inside his chest.

He knew he had to return and shine his own light.

Over the past two years, Woosley has worked as a summer intern at Lighthouse Family Retreat, forgoing idle days poolside or hanging out with friends, or even working a summer job, to give back what he was given.

“I got to be served in the way that I serve others [now],” he said of his position as a Work Crew lead, and he appreciates the opportunity to help others. “A lot of these kids look different. They’re in wheelchairs, their bodies are manipulated in ways that other kids their age may not understand, but they’re not different than we are.”

And, he’s not the only one serving. This past summer he recruited a fellow University of Nebraska-Lincoln student to join Lighthouse, too.

“[Luke] always said, ‘John, this is gonna change your life! This is exactly like what you’ve been looking for.’ I originally didn’t believe him, but something kept stirring in my heart to go, and my life really did change,” said John Grindey, a former dorm mate and friend who was evangelized by Woosley. “It’s broadened my horizons, but it’s also left a tattoo on my heart for families who are struggling with childhood cancer.”

Woosley said he plans to pursue a career in child health care, and is following a pre-med track at UNL.  His experiences with brother Bo’s illness and with the resort most certainly played a role in that choice.

“Ten thousand percent,” he emphasized. “Before Lighthouse, I was going to be a lawyer. I remember very, very strongly wanting to be a lawyer But once my senior year came around, I started to kind of shadow people in the medical field,” he explained. “Coming back as an intern, getting to be so close with the kiddos 100% made me want to go into pediatrics.”

In the meantime, he intends to keep the light shining at Lighthouse, helping others find shore in the midst of whatever storms may come. 

“That feeling of normalcy,” he said. “Of letting them be a kid again...is so huge and so critical.” 

Visit lighthousefamilyretreat.org for more information.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

 

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