TYLER — During a commute to Tyler, Melissa Stark and her husband, Daniel, were listening to the radio. Suddenly, a commercial for the East Texas Food Bank came on, announcing food distributions in the area. As she drove, he began to signal to the radio, and she turned to him.
“What do you want? You want to go to a food bank?” she asked.
He nodded yes.
Each food distribution became a blessing to the Kilgore couple. They had been going through the most difficult time of their lives. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and weeks later, so was her husband.
With her mother eight hours away, and having to take care of her husband while caring for her two children, Melissa was trying her best to stay positive and hopeful.
When Daniel was diagnosed with stage four melanoma, which had affected his skull, the couple discovered weeks later he had brain tumors caused by the cancer. The tumors caused a brain bleed and soon after, he suffered a major stroke, taking away his mobility and ability to verbally communicate.
The radio commercial they heard during the commute from their home in Kilgore to receive chemotherapy at the UT Health Northeast MD Anderson Cancer Center in Tyler opened an opportunity for the family. From that day forward, anytime the East Texas Food Bank held a food distribution event, the Starks planned their day and scheduled appointments around that time.
“(Daniel) enjoyed it. I think in his mind, he was still providing for the family by bringing groceries home, even though he wasn’t working and I wasn’t working at the time,” Melissa said.
The couple got home and were able to fill their freezer. They had produce, canned items, beans and rice.
Grateful, the couple discussed volunteering at the East Texas Food Bank when his condition improved.
During their travels to receive medical care in Tyler, Melissa lost her job along with her income, benefits and life insurance. Months later, her husband also lost his job.
Throughout the struggles they were facing as a family and going in and out of hospitals, there was a limit in their support group because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“If you’re either having a baby or you’re in the hospital for an illness, you always have the friends and the family and your spiritual people that come and are there for you. They’re holding your hand, they’re hugging you, they’re telling you everything’s going to be OK. We didn’t have that. COVID took all of that away. My own children could not be there with us,” Melissa said.
She found a glimmer of hope after posting updates through Facebook for friends and family to keep up.
“I put everything on Facebook, ‘This is what we’re going through,’ ” she said.
After reading her updates, a group of spiritual brothers and sisters started a fund for the Starks.
One of those spiritual sisters worked at the hospital they were staying at. She became the only person Melissa could see, unless nurses allowed the couple to quickly run downstairs and see their children.
One day, that person brought an envelope filled with money to Melissa. It was enough to get through one more month of insurance for her husband.
“To have that one person that I could depend on at the hospital, was awesome. It was really nice to have that because every now and then I could text her, ‘Hey, I need some spiritual help here,’ ” she said.
Her spiritual sister would go upstairs, and Melissa would come out of the room. Together, they would pray.
“You think about all the other people in the hospital that didn’t have family members there because they could speak,” she said.
Melissa said she was only allowed to be with her husband in the hospital because he could not verbally communicate. She kept publishing on Facebook and posting their “blessing of the day” when anything good happened.
The day she got that money, Melissa called her mom, as usual, to check-in and share the good news.
Her mother didn’t answer her phone calls or text messages. Soon after, Melissa found out her mother hadn’t been telling her the truth about her illness.
“Every time I asked my mom, ‘Mom, how’s your cancer doing? How’s this, how’s that?’ She would always tell me everything was good and that the doctors were happy with her progress. She wasn’t telling me the truth. She was keeping that to herself because she knew I had so much on my plate,” she said.
That evening, her mother called her and told her she was being put in a hospice treatment center.
“I said, ‘Hospice?’ She said ‘Yeah, mija, I’m not doing good,’” she said.
At the time, Daniel was in rehab and traded places with a friend, who stayed with her husband for a week. At 4 a.m. Melissa rushed to her mother in West Texas.
At that point, her mother was no longer able to speak, and Melissa stayed by her side.
“I talked to her, and I said, ‘Mom, I know you’re tired, and I know that you don’t want to let us go, but I’m here. I’ll take care of Jason and dad. You can go.’”
Because of the eight-hour drive, Melissa was tired. Taking care of her husband had become a full-time job. She got no sleep.
“I told her, ‘I’m going to take a nap.’ I laid down on the couch, and in 30 minutes, they came and told me she was gone. I think she was holding on for me,” Melissa said.
After saying goodbye to her mother, the friend who had been with her husband called her and told her he wasn’t doing good.
In October, exactly three weeks after her mother died, Melissa lost her husband of 27 years.
After the initial mourning the loss of the two most important people in her life, Melissa began the job hunt, which eventually led her to the East Texas Food Bank.
But she also had another job offer she hadn’t yet accepted.
“Something was telling me, ‘You have to go to the East Texas Food Bank,’” she said.
After interviews and telling her story, Melissa was hired to work as a receptionist at the food bank through a temp agency. A few weeks ago, she was offered permanent employment as an office manager and administrative assistant to the CEO. She is no longer a temp, but an employee at the place that was a source of support for herself and her husband.
As a bilingual professional, she has assisted the Hispanic community to learn about food distributions and programs.
“That was my thing. I always told my husband that my next job, my next career, I was going to help people. Whether it was through being an advocate for melanoma, cancer, some type of advocate, that’s what I wanted to do,” Melissa said.