As the clock ticked down to the start of the Nicolet Bay 5K on May 7, 2022, and 565 runners huddled on Shore Road, a swarm of people in pink shirts gathered in the woods to the east of Shore Road.
The pink wave was Team Chrystal: 36 runners taking part in the Run for a Cause to support Chrystal Chartier-Wittenmyer, her husband and two children as Chrystal battled breast cancer. She was there with them, too, pushed by her friends to the starting line in a wheelchair. Those friends had raised $21,107 to help support the family’s move into a new home built by Habitat for Humanity in Baileys Harbor.
“It was extraordinary to see so many people come out and raise money,” said Deb Davis, who organized the effort. “It was very teary eyed in that group – little kids running with moms and dads, all ages of people. A number of the kids knew her children, and by that time, they knew their friend was going to lose their mom, so to see that was indescribable.”
By that time, Chrystal knew her chances of survival were vanishingly slim. She had battled the disease for four years, throwing traditional and experimental treatments at her opponent in round after round of fighting.
“Chrystal was always the independent one, the do-it-yourself-at-all-costs person. I called her toxically independent,” said her husband, Lucas. “She would say, ‘I’m not the charity case,’ but that’s what she had to do. She had to accept help.”
But throughout her fight, Chrystal kept her sense of humor, even during the 5K in the park. Her good friend Carrie Baldwin ran with her in the 5K, huffing and puffing through the course.
“Do you need my oxygen?” Chrystal quipped. “Because you sound like you need it more than I do.”
Baldwin, founder of the Sue Baldwin Fund, which provides support to people and families fighting cancer; and Davis, a member of the fund’s board of directors, helped to organize Team Chrystal. That effort brought comfort to Chrystal during her final months.
“Being able to tell her there was $20,000 going to help her family get in the house was incredible,” Baldwin said. “She was comforted in knowing they would be OK. That this is where they’re going to be. She wanted to know the kids would be OK.”
The Wittenmyers had moved to Door County four years earlier, when they bought an acre and a half in Baileys Harbor and started making plans to build a home. They moved here from Johnson Creek, drawn by the quality schools and the lifestyle. But their plans took longer to materialize than they had hoped, then were set back further when Chrystal was diagnosed with breast cancer.
They bounced among homes – a friend’s tiny house, campgrounds, hotel rooms – for four years. They focused on the adventure – what Chrystal called “the opportunity” for her kids to live in an RV park.
“You never heard them talk about needing anything,” Baldwin said of Chrystal and Lucas. “They’re just selfless people.”
But as her cancer progressed, the moving became harder, and Chrystal yearned to provide stability for her family. They applied and were chosen for Door County Habitat for Humanity’s 40th home in early 2022. After nine moves, Chrystal; Lucas; their daughter, Lida; and their son, Evren, would soon have a home of their own.
But Chrystal won’t be moving in with them. In October, her fight with cancer ended when she died at age 41.
Three months later, Lucas said each day brings a different challenge.
“It’s difficult on different levels, depending on what part of life you’re talking about,” he said. “There are things she handled that blindsided me when she was gone. She used to be my paperwork person. I disdain paperwork. But that’s life; I have to learn it.”
Evren and Lida are doing as well as you could hope, Lucas said. Throughout Chrystal’s fight, the parents were as honest and up-front as they could be with their kids during their family meetings.
“They needed to know where things really stood,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of them being OK now. The kids weren’t sure how long it was going to last, but there were times I made sure they prioritized time with Mom, and they did.”
Lucas worries a lot about their schoolwork, about giving them the most normalcy that he can. But he said he doesn’t worry about having people to lean on.
“There aren’t really words that explain what it means, the things people have done,” he said. “It always surprised me the amount of generosity that comes from this community. I’m not sure how we would have been able to make it. I’d for sure be sleeping a lot less.”
As Chrystal approached the starting line with an army around her, she knew it would take a miracle for her to get healthy again, but she also knew she had secured one large victory for the people she cared about the most: a home of their own.
“She knew it was a foundation for the future of her family and that they would still be in this community,” Davis said. “Seeing that strength of other humans running with them was moving.”
Lucas, Evren and Lida are slated to move into their new home in March. Learn more about the local Habitat for Humanity at doorhabitat.org.
Run for a Cause
The Door County Half Marathon’s Run for a Cause program has helped runners raise more than $240,000 for area charities since 2010. To join the effort, email [email protected]. Runners receive a free entry to the Door County Half Marathon or Nicolet Bay 5K when they raise at least $250 for an area charity of their choice. Find more information at doorcountyhalfmarathon.com.