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Voyageur's Best Features of 2006

Brian Saaristo

A family riding on self–reliance
 
by Mike Heaser and John Grones  |  October 17, 2006
 

“I’m alive,” Brian Saaristo said in interview at his home in Wright, Minnesota. That is the attitude he has taken since having both of his legs amputated below the knees after an improvised explosive device (IED) blew up the vehicle he was riding in while serving the United States of America in Iraq back in July.

Brian and his family, (wife Cheryl, son Brian Jr., and daughter Leah) returned home Sunday, October 8 after enduring a couple of months of rehabilitation in Washington D.C. Upon arriving home, the family received a warm welcome from friends, family, and several organizations.

Brian’s outlook is very positive and the entire family seems to look at the injury not as a limitation, but a challenge life has handed them. “The first thing you have do is change your attitude,” said Brian.“If you fall off your bike, you get back on. Just keep going.”

Brian struggles to maneuver through his house which is now undersized and almost inaccessible with his wheelchair. He has been using his prosthetic legs as much as his doctors allow, and sometimes more, but the wheelchair is his main form of transportation through the house right now. “Like I said, I don’t let it get me down.” It is apparent he doesn’t.

Brian is confident about a productive future which will allow him to plan ahead to his next motorcycle ride. At the moment, balance is an issue. “It will happen,” he said.

Brian owned a Harley Davidson at one time and insists he will own a bike again. It seems as though its not a matter of if, but when for him. Chances are, he won’t be parked in a handicap space. “I won’t park there; I’ll just park in a regular spot and walk,” he explained as an expression of biker rebellion panned over his face. “I’m an honest person. I’m gonna tell ya.”

The Saaristo kids aren’t much different from their dad.Brian describes them both as self-reliant. “My children think for themselves. It’s a good thing,” he noted. “I like that. They’re not followers; they will be leaders.

Cheryl agrees.

The family has bonded through this experience, although they do spend some time battling over control of the thermostat (Brian wants it set at 60˚ and Cheryl 74˚).

Brian and Cheryl are sincerely grateful to the local communities who have supported them and welcomed them home. From the McNultys who watched their dog while they were in Washington D.C., to the Sworskis who watched “Cecil” their goat. Then there was the pancake breakfast benefit the community held for them and the garage their friends and family built for them.

“In a small town like this you don’t actually know how people come together until something like this happens,” concluded Brian. “We tried to make it home in time for the benefit dinner, but the traffic in Chicago (Illinois) and Wisconsin was unbearable. I was mad. It took us three hours to get through Chicago.”

Cheryl specifically wanted to acknowledge the Red Cross for all their help, also to the Yellow Ribbon Fund which paid for their car rental in D.C., and the Wounded Warrior Program that paid for the Saaristo kids and their cousins’ plane tickets out east.

BENEFIT BREAKFAST

“We were all pretty devastated when we heard the news,” said Cromwell resident Carolyn Krog. “We were wondering what we could do to help the family. Something should be done. What can we do?”

Carolyn, along with Marcella Dahl, decided to have a meeting to form a plan. They invited friends and relatives, the two mayors (Cromwell and Wright), members of the Auxiliary, and people from the churches and the school.

During a brainstorming session, the group decided on a pancake breakfast. Things evolved from there, and in addition to a breakfast, the day included a silent auction, music, bingo and a quilt raffle.

“The quilt was an afterthought,” said Carolyn. “When a member of our group visited the quilt shop in Floodwood (Hingley Road Quilting) to see if she would donate something for the silent auction, they offered a beautiful quilt on the basis that all the donations go to Brian.”

It was then decided to raffle the quilt off at five dollars a ticket.

Carolyn shared that they continued to meet weekly, and the group split up and went to work. They recruited members of the fire department and the Arts Guild.

The benefit was a tremendous success. The donations are still coming in, and they have raised over $17,000. “It’s just amazing—the outpouring from the local community,” added Carolyn.”We served over 600 breakfasts.”

Carolyn credited Brad Bennett from KDAL radio for spreading the word about the benefit. “The radio was very beneficial for the Duluth crowd. He talked about it on his radio show and collected some of the prizes,” Carolyn concluded.

MOVING FORWARD

At this point, the Saaristos aren’t sure about their future. Cheryl and the children really like the school district, but the old farm house isn’t handicap accessible, and the cost to renovate might not be cost-effective. The current plan is to find a larger home.

For now, the family is making do. They appreciate the community’s efforts. As Brian and Cheryl look out the window, they see the garage Brian’s father, Edwin, and members of the community built. “It will come in handy for storing extra furniture,” said Cheryl.

Brian also looks out the window beyond the garage and concludes. “There is a whole life out there. You can’t spend it looking out a window.”

This article first appeared in the October 17, 2006 issue of the Voyageur Press.