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Animal sanctuary volunteer battling cancer receives unique Happily Ever After gift

Published: Nov. 19, 2020 at 5:28 PM CST
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WAUPACA COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - A Green Bay man receives a unique surprise at an animal shelter he’s volunteered at for years.

It’s a gift that will honor his motto about life -- never giving up -- even as he battles stage four pancreatic cancer.

A farmstead in rural Clintonville, home to the Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary, is Dean Ekberg’s happy place, too.

The animals always bring a smile to his face, and for the last five years, so has volunteering there.

“To me, it’s not work. I come out and spend the day and build something and make it look good and work with these great people. It’s fun,” says Dean.

Little did he know this week’s trip to drop off supplies from a donation drive and help with a little construction project would reveal a deeply personal and unique gift -- a room dedicated to Dean.

As he opens the door to see it for the first time, he says, “The tears are starting to well up.”

Dean and Debbie Ekberg see for the first time the room created in Dean's honor, called the...
Dean and Debbie Ekberg see for the first time the room created in Dean's honor, called the Walls of Wisdom, at the Happily Ever After Sanctuary near Clintonville.(WBAY)

His favorite quotes hang on hand-crafted signs in every corner you look.

It’s what the sanctuary calls Dean’s Walls of Wisdom.

“That is so cool, Marcus. I truly appreciate it,” Dean tells the man who crafted the idea.

“Today the room... we were able to reveal it to Dean, and to see his reaction when he walked in the door was just priceless,” says Marcus Reitz, longtime friend and development director at Happily Ever After.

“I’m a little overwhelmed at the moment, and again, a little guilty,” says Dean. “I think there’s others that deserve notoriety, too.”

But right now, it’s all about Dean.

“I do say this a lot when I’ve got a challenge coming up. Well, enough time and effort, we can do it. Time, effort and money sometimes,” says Dean, looking at the one of the new signs and laughing.

And Dean is putting in the effort -- and fight -- of his life.

After a long illness with pancreatitis, in late May, doctors confirmed Dean has stage four pancreatic cancer.

A conversation soon after his diagnosis with Reitz led to a head-shaving fundraiser in the summer where Reitz told him if they raised enough money, they’d name a room at the sanctuary after him.

Dean hadn’t realized how serious they were about that idea.

The group far exceeded its fundraising goal, but until this week, Dean had no idea a room dedicated to him had been in the works.

“It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful. More than I ever expected. It’s pretty cool they’d honor him this way,” says Dean’s wife, Debbie.

“I think Dean doesn’t understand his own power, and when you’re around Dean, you feel this energy that says let’s get things done together,” says Reitz.

Dean Ekberg holds one of the signs that will now hang inside the Happily Ever After Sanctuary...
Dean Ekberg holds one of the signs that will now hang inside the Happily Ever After Sanctuary Animal Sanctuary's room dedicated to Dean.(WBAY)

The day after the big reveal, and the same day as World Pancreatic Cancer Day, Dean receives his 14th chemo treatment.

He’s hopeful the immunotherapies he’s also receiving as part of a clinical trial will make a difference.

“If you’re going to do it, do it all the way or don’t do it at all,” says Dean.

Maybe that quote could go on those walls, too, because Dean is a fighter, determined to make the best of his journey ahead.

“She said pretty much, I’d do chemo the rest of my life,” Dean tells us of a conversation with his oncologist. He tears up, but continues, “That hurts. You deal with it.”

He and Debbie exchange hugs.

“But days like today makes it all better. It makes it worth it,” says Dean.

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