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Helping where she is called

Woman has served as a caregiver to various family, friends

By Carlienne A. Frisch

Jean with her husband, Jim, in 2018, the year he passed away in Tucson, Arizona. Jean the caregiver for Jim, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. Contributed photo

Jean Harberts has filled many roles in her 75 years. Like many women, she has been a stay-at-home mother and a volunteer in her community. For some time, she was the caregiver for her husband as he dealt with multiple sclerosis in his final years. More recently, she spent months as the live-in caregiver for a Mankato friend who passed away after a long illness.

With scarcely a break, Harberts then drove to Missouri to take care of one of her brothers so his family could take a trip. Back in Minnesota last fall, she finally took a break from the responsibilities of caregiving while staying with a sister in the Twin Cities area.

Harberts finds strength for the responsibilities of caregiving in her long-time relationship with Jesus Christ, as well as in as much travel as her caregiving schedule allows. She recently went to England with a friend from the non-denominational Bible study group they both attend on Tuesday afternoons.

Jean’s flexibility in adjusting to various situations may have begun with her being the youngest of four children in a family that also included foster children. In 1966, she moved from her childhood home in the southwestern Minnesota community of Sherburne to Mankato, where she attended what was then Minnesota State College (now Minnesota State University, Mankato). Two years later, she married Jim Harberts, a fellow college student.

After he joined the U.S. Navy, she moved with him to Jacksonville Fla., where he was stationed--and their first son was born.

Jean stayed to help her brother and sister-in-law in Missouri in 2021. Contributed photo

The couple returned to Minnesota in 1978, where Jim sought an additional degree in urban studies and then pursued a career in urban planning. Two more children were born to the couple, and Jean became a stay-at-home mother operating a day care. She often filled several roles, including as a volunteer at her church. In 1988, she returned to the university to complete a degree in business education.

“I was still working at the church, but I was looking for something different,” Jean said. She became involved with a non-profit community assistance program for refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, eventually becoming the director and writing grant applications to augment funding provided by the church. When her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Harberts stepped down from her leadership position and moved into a new role that God provided in the less challenging climate of Arizona.

“In 1996, God moved us to Tucson,” she explained. “A realtor had called me in February of that year and asked if we had considered selling our house. There was no advance thought about this. We were sure this was from God, and we knew we should follow through with it. Our house wasn’t even on the market, but a realtor brought a buyer who made an offer--and we accepted.”

God’s timing was evident in the schedule for the move. The Harberts sold their home on Monday, and Friday was Jim Harberts’ last day of work. (He had applied for disability payments.) The realtor found a rental home for them, and volunteers from their church helped them move. But the Harberts felt God leading them in another direction.

Jean provided care to Carmen (pictured), a friend she got to know through a Bible Study in the 1970s. Jean stayed with Carmen and helped her for 11 months. Contributed photo

“We kept hearing and seeing signals for Arizona,” Jean said, so that’s where they headed, not having a particular destination in mind. “We felt like Abraham and Sarah going to the Promised Land. Nothing in Phoenix worked out, and then we tried Casa Grande. Then, driving in Tucson, I said, ‘This feels like home.’ We began looking at houses there the next day, and a few days later we bought a house. In two weeks we were in it. School started a week later for our son, who was still in high school.”

Harberts began managing a photography studio, but soon learned that she had to be flexible with employment. She explained, “Because of Jim’s illness, which was progressive, God made me into a caregiver. Yet I just had it on my heart to be a realtor. I was scared, and I realized I had always depended on a paycheck rather than on the Lord. Jim wanted a sign--a cardinal--and one day he saw a cardinal on the lemon tree in the back yard. That was the sign for me to go into real estate.”

As her husband’s health deteriorated, she moved them into an assisted living arrangement, making the adjustment from residing in a 1,600-square foot, four-bedroom home to living in an 850-square foot apartment. (Their son had moved to college by then.)

Jean remained in Tucson for a year after her husband’s death in 2018 before traveling abroad with her sister Nelda. The trip led her to rid herself of what she calls her “stuff” and plan to travel the world as a volunteer with Youth With a Mission. The plan was derailed by the COVID epidemic.

“When COVID hit, I was in Hawaii,” Jean said. “I returned to Tucson and stayed with friends, had knee surgery, and then flew back to Minnesota to be with Nelda, who appreciated having someone with her.” But Jean didn’t stay there for long. In 2021, she spent six weeks with her brother in Missouri, drove to Tucson to spend Christmas with friends, then drove back to Minnesota to be with Nelda. Jean decided Minnesota would be her home base, so she remodeled her area of the house, doing much of the work herself. She has since divided her time between Minnesota and Arizona, responding to the needs of family members.

Jean has provided in-home care to her sister a few times over the years as her sister recovered from various surgeries. Contributed photo

“I got a call from my nephew in Phoenix saying his son needed an emotional support person,” she explained, “but after only 10 days, I got a call from my daughter in Shakopee that she was having breast cancer surgery the next week. So I came back and stayed with her through her surgery and recovery. When she didn’t need me anymore, I went back to Phoenix to help my nephew with his son.” She later returned to Minnesota to provide support for her daughter.

Jean describes Tucson as “legally and emotionally my residence.” She put together a schedule for a few months--in pencil. She explained, “God has always led me ‘now,’ not ‘next week.’” By the end of February 2023, she was on her next mission/assignment. She had received a call from a Minnesota friend whom she had met at a Bible study in the 1970s. The friend, Carmen, had called Jean on a Thursday. By Sunday, she was at her friend’s home in Mankato, where she lived for the next 11 months, taking care of household chores and providing companionship.

Since her friend’s death, Jean has spent much of the past year-and-a-half traveling. In April, she took her family of adult children to San Diego, and in May traveled with her sister to England. Jean has visited her son in Seattle and took a 15-year-old granddaughter on an inland Alaska cruise in October, followed by a trip with a Bible study friend to England, Scotland and Ireland. Flexibility continues to be one of Harberts’ qualities.

“I’ve been reconnecting with friends in Mankato whom I’ve known for decades,” she said. “I plan to stay with my sister for a few months and then see where God leads me. I don’t know where I’ll be because God hasn’t given me that plan yet.”

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