Meet the Wagner Family
Writer Stephanie Maher Palenque
Photographer Pogue Photography
I sat in the Wagners’ living room staring down at the tiniest speck of a seed that Steve Wagner had placed in my upturned palm. In fact, it was so tiny that I thought I had lost it for a moment.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked. Seeing my confusion, he explained, “It is a mustard seed. All the faith that we ever need is the faith of a mustard seed. With that, you can move mountains.”
Steve was referring to Bible verse Matthew 17:20: “… Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible to you.” The seed, given to him by Anthem resident Steve Maderos, has become a symbol of the Wagner family’s faith and hope.
Just over a year ago, an ashen-faced doctor gave the Wagner family devastating news that would forever change their lives. Just as the seed is tiny, so was the hope they were handed when the doctor delivered news that not only was their vivacious, beautiful daughter Katie in stage four of a cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma, but that it had spread throughout her abdomen and several parts of her body.
It is estimated that only five children in every million have this type of cancer. What followed was as rare as the diagnosis itself: after being handed a dismal prognosis, followed by a harrowing year of chemotherapy with effects so severe that it sometimes hampered Katie’s ability to walk, talk and eat, doctors have now determined she has no evidence of cancer in her body. Indeed, a speck of faith can move mountains.
The ordeal played out in a very public way, with a great deal of love, support and encouragement from an amazing community. However, at the end of the day, it has been the Wagner family: Dad, Steve; Mom, Jacque; and children Chase, Katie and Brett, whose lives have been forever changed. Now, they can begin to move forward, figuring out what their “new normal” is together as a family, knowing that it is all in God’s great plan.
When Steve and Jacque danced to their wedding song, Household of Faith, 21 years ago, they could never have known how much faith they would one day need to put one foot in front of the other and courageously move forward as a family.
Steve, an Arizona native, and Jacque, who moved to Arizona from the Midwest, met at Palmcroft Baptist Church more than 21 years ago. Steve took Jacque to Pinnacle Peak Patio, then to the racetrack for their first date. He sealed the deal when he bought her a rose on the way home. By the time he was ready to make a surprise wedding proposal on December 23, the following year, the date of his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.
Industrious Steve was a homeowner at the age of 22. Jacque was impressed, but knew that the house was lacking a woman’s touch. “When you walked into the home, there was a pool table front and center. It was a bachelor’s pad through and through!” Nevertheless, the newlyweds made their home there for the first eight years of their marriage.
After prodding from brother-in-law Fred Struss, who was also an employee of the developer and the first homeowner in Anthem, the family checked out plans for the new community and liked what they learned. Soon, Chase, five, and Katie, three, moved with Steve and Jacque into their newly built house, which they still call home today. Soon after, Brett was born.
The family became part of the unflappable community of pioneering residents in Anthem. Chase enrolled as the very first student of Anthem School, and Steve continued working with his father at their business, Manna Painting, and is now the head of the painting division of Stone Canyon Construction. They built happy lives in the community, and enjoyed Anthem and all that it has grown to be.
Eldest son Chase graduated from Boulder Creek High School last year, and was offered a scholarship to play baseball at Glendale Community College, where he plans to study fire science. His love for both his brother and sister is evident in his eyes. Chase and Brett were wrestling on the floor the night that I visited, as brothers sometimes do.
Katie is a sweet, smart young woman who lights up the room with her smile. She describes herself as “shy” and “normal” and has been surprised by the attention that her diagnosis attracted.
Katie works with a homebound teacher, and goes into class after school for certain subjects. “My friends tell me how lucky I am to study from home, but I would much rather be back in school with all of my friends and classmates,” she noted. She looks forward to returning to a traditional schedule so that she can be “normal” again. She is also looking forward to a future that includes missionary work.
Brett is a fifth grader at Anthem School, where he loves his teacher and his friends. He enjoys anything sports-related. His current favorite sport is baseball, although he likes many, and he plays in Anthem’s High Desert Little League. He has great respect and admiration for his big brother and strives to be just like him.
The Wagner family is not sure of much at this point, but they know that God is using them for a purpose. Jacque shared, “At the beginning of this journey, we never would have imagined the number of lives that have been changed through this.”
Steve added, “For the first time in my life, there was a problem that I couldn’t just fix. I couldn’t just go get a side job and fix it. This couldn’t be fixed. I realized then that God has been preparing us our whole lives.”
Katie agreed. “When I was first diagnosed, I felt at peace. I knew that God had a plan for me.”
It is evident that Katie has already begun her work as a missionary, as she has touched lives in every corner of the globe from her hospital bed. Her mission field is much larger than she ever could have realized a year ago.
She has summoned courage to face public speaking, such as a recent engagement where she had to speak to more than 1,500 people. “I had no idea that it would be that many people!” she explained.
Part of the change Katie has affected is through the Phoenix Children’s Hospital fundraising candlelight walk, Ignite Hope. The idea for the program started as an ember one evening as she sat at her window and watched in surprised delight as about 300 students in the field across from her window held a candlelight vigil and prayed for her.
Katie explained, “Two students who I didn’t know from another high school said that they felt called to organize the vigil. It meant a lot to me to know that I had this support early on.”
Ignite Hope will now be a yearly event hosted by Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Christ’s Church of the Valley. There will be an ambassador chosen to lead the event each year, and Katie will be the inaugural ambassador this year.
The family is also looking forward to what promises to be a wonderful vacation, courtesy of the Make a Wish Foundation. When Katie was possibly her sickest, as she went through what is referred to as “red devil chemo,” foundation representatives visited her at home. Katie made her wish known.
Katie recalls, “I had sores in my mouth, and I couldn’t speak or eat. My hands were burned from the inside out. So I sat here, with my palms upturned and spoke through my mom.”
Katie’s wish was to go on a family cruise to the Caribbean, the family’s first cruise ever. She chose to wait to take the cruise until she was completely done with chemotherapy and feeling better. Thankfully, that should be before Christmas this year. An amazing Christmas present, indeed.
At this point, the Wagner family is taking things not one day at a time, but one moment at a time. Jacque noted, “It is almost too overwhelming to think too far into the future.”
Steve agreed, and explained how his entire perspective on life has shifted, “Now, when I see people racing in their cars, cutting each other off, I think to myself, ‘What could possibly be that important? How much of a rush could they be in?’”
The Wagner family has hit some of their lowest points, but along with family, friends, and the community, they have hit some of their highest high points, too. They are now looking forward to some “normal” time, whatever shape that may take in the future.
One thing is for sure, as long as they have even one mustard seed of faith, they will be okay.