On the 10th anniversary of service as the first nurse at Hospice Care of the West, we are honored to celebrate Julie Voelz. Her journey is a shining example of following your heart and discovering the purpose that God has for your life.
Mark Twain, American author once said and it resonates today as Julie shares her story that: “The two most important days in one’s life is the day you were born and the day you find out why.”
In the late 1950s, Julie was born as the sixth child of eight in Deerborne, Michigan. Her hometown for those of you who don’t know is Henry Ford’s hometown. Her father worked for Ford Motor Company and her mother was a 1950s housewife. Reared in a bustling Irish Catholic family, Julie experienced a rich unity between family and church life. Her childhood home was a former covenant for nuns across the street from their church.
The seasons of her childhood were clearly defined by the church fundraising festivals and holiday celebrations of Christmas and Easter. The church bells governed her daily rituals as the ringing of six o’clock ushered in Julie and her siblings from playtime for dinner, which was the same time every day in her home.
“The church was an extension of our home,” Julie reflected.
Dinner was nothing short of a production directed by her mother. Her father arrived home not long before and would sip a martini before dinner was served at the living room table, where the family of 10 sat down together. Prayer and blessings began each meal. At bedtime, Julie’s mother knelt down at the bedside with her children to pray with them before they laid their heads to rest.
“Though my mother had her hands full,” Julie said. “I admire how she kept our family intact. My security as a child was never challenged and that is easy to take for granted.”
Her mother was the spiritual center of gravity for the family. She gave Julie a spiritual foundation and security that remains present today. Julie knew at a young age that life was temporal. She had a fascination with death and the afterlife. And a strong intuitive understanding of heaven, angels and that there was more to life than what we can see and touch.
Her father had a knack for putting folks at ease and a kindness that could connect with everyone, a quality that lives on in Julie today. He always had a joke or story to share to make those around him laugh.
“My father was a good dad,” Julie said with a note of comfort in her voice. “He loved my mother and he was devoted to providing for his family.”
Music filled her home as a child. Her mother played the piano and her father played the trumpet together in the evenings and weekends. She shared a room with one of her six sisters. There was never a shortage of someone to play with among her seven siblings, who could make up teams for red light/green light and dodge ball. They all attended the school attached to the church across the street.
“I had built in playmates,” Julie said.
As a child, she yearned for a glamorous life as an airline stewardess. She dreamed of travel and adventure. Yet the stability of home, church and community anchored Julie. It was a given that she would marry and become a mother.
Her free spirit inspired some rebellious years as a young adult. Though, it was the late 60s and 70s. The entire young adult population rebelled against the norms and values of their parents’ World War II generation. Being so close to Detroit, Motown music colored her teenaged years, her weekends filled with reveling and parties.
After high school, she obtained her secretarial science degree in college that paved the path to become a secretary at the Ford Motor Company, where her father and sister worked. She and her sister rented an apartment together. And in 1978, she bought her first brand new rust color hot Ford Mustang.
That year, the call of adventure beckoned Julie when a friend invited her to stay with her cousin, a Pacific Southwest Airlines stewardess, based in San Diego, California. It was late February.
“The weather in Michigan was cold, I was ready for a change,” Julie said. “I had never been to California, I’d heard about it. When we arrived it was warm, balmy. We stayed in a apartment that was more like a resort-setting. I kept saying, ‘I’m moving to California.’”
When she arrived back in Michigan, she walked out of the airport into an ice storm. Tears streamed down her face. Her heart burned for California. She had to find a way to go back.
She began searching for Ford plants in California, and eventually Ford Aerospace in Newport Beach, California surfaced. Julie set her internal compass to point west. First, she had to break the news to her parents and family.
“There was resentment from my sisters,” Julie said. “They would say, ‘You’re never going to move out there.’ The sister I lived with didn’t make it easy for me. There was a sense of abandoning them. I had to do it. I had grown up enmeshed with them. I needed to live without the controlling forces. I needed my own life. It was bitter sweet.”
She received the job with Ford Aerospace. Her father helped Julie map the Route 66 to drive out to California. She planned to move to Irvine, a neighborhood and community that she found on a roommate service.
“I believe it was God’s intervention as the desire was so strong and overwhelmed my heart,” she said. “I wanted a new start and a better place to live.”
Her grandmother died just days before she planned to leave to drive across country in her Ford Mustang, with all her belongings packed inside. She attended the funeral and said her good-byes to the whole family gathered together in grief. It was not easy to see the only life she knew recede in the back windshield of her car that day.
There was no GPS or cell phones. She had a CB radio and her code name was Highway Star.
As she left Michigan, and found herself cruising through the hot desert in the middle of July, a smile crept over her face. She was chasing her California dream on Route 66. She stopped at campgrounds to sleep at night, as she worried about her belongings being stolen. The drive was beautiful. Flowers lined the highway and the stars filled the sky in New Mexico and Arizona. She picked up a young guy with a guitar at a gas station along the way, and eventually got rid of him at one of the rest stops in Arizona. The dramatic ocean cliffs came into view as she entered California.
“God protected me, there was so many things that could have happened to me and my Mustang” she said. “I didn’t have one flat tire or breakdown.”
She arrived in Irvine and immediately dove into her new life.
“Ford Aerospace was a big compound of young, single, fun, nice people,” Julie said. “I was living the good life in park west apartments with barbeques, pools, a clubhouse and tennis courts.”
In the midst of all the fun, she kept seeing a blond guy that attracted her at work and also just around at work social gatherings. On her way biking back to her home from a party in Balboa in Newport, she bumped into this guy again.
“I stopped my bike and said, ‘hey, don’t you work at Ford Aerospace,” she said. They started talking and he showed her where he lived in Newport. That afternoon, they played Frisbee on the beach.
“I remember biking back home that night, smiling, and happy to have met this new guy,” she said. “I pursued it when I saw him at work again, I invited him for a barbeque and we started spending time together. He was so easy to talk to. He cared about me. It was so natural. And it was a loving relationship. He even started attending my Lutheran church with me.”
For a year, they spent time together playing on softball teams, camping, hiking and playing tennis. Until, he received an offer to go to Maryland. When he told Julie of the offer, he asked her to go. She only agreed to go if he wanted to be married. And he did. So, they swiftly prepared a wedding within a couple of months. Julie and Larry Voelz married in their church and celebrated their vows at a reception on a harbor cruise in Newport Beach on her 24th Birthday. They honeymooned on a trip across the country to Maryland stopping to celebrate with her family in Michigan and his family in Wisconsin.
Julie got pregnant on her honeymoon. Julie and Larry agreed that she would become a stay-at-home mother. Larry was a systems engineer at Ford Aerospace in Research and Development, and later Raytheon. They eventually returned to California, Julie gave birth to her first daughter Jenelle. She had fun back at home in California, taking her new daughter to the beach and being involved in their church. Four years later, they decided to have another child, Erica, and another four years brought a baby brother, Ryan, for the girls. As a mother, Julie had a newfound respect for her mother and dedication she had for her children.
“We were really involved in our children’s lives from girl scouts to boy scouts, to sports, camping and traveling together,” she said. “Irvine was a great place to raise a family. We could go out at night for a walk to get yogurt, and not worry about anything. It was like Deerborne.”
Once the kids got a little older, she became restless and so she started praying for a new path to surface once more in her life. She found a home health aide program that was intriguing, as she relished caring for the elderly and listening to stories of their past.
“I love the elderly,” she said. “They are really fun to talk to. The home health aide was a good fit for me. But it was very labor intensive. And so I decided to get my LVN.”
In the 1990s, she enrolled in a challenging nursing program at North Regional Occupational Program. Julie studied hard as only half the class graduated each year.
“I put my fears and threats from the staff of not graduating aside and focused on achieving my dream to become a nurse, “ she said. “And I survived, I graduated.”
She started at VITAS hospice and eventually became the first LVN hired by Gina Andres, the first Executive Director, at Hospice Care of the West in August 2004. Julie worked with Lori Stewart, RN, and the home health aides in growing the hospice.
“There were some hiccups along the way, as we were a start-up company, but my work was evolving. I was building my skills as a nurse. Gina did a great job making the company better and bigger. Each person added special gifts, to the program. The employees hired had a heart for hospice, which is key for a successful hospice. You have to have a good group, everybody from the managers to the home health aides. Lori, Gina and I gave it our all. We really wanted to do the best we could to build the reputation of the hospice and carry it hopefully through to completion.”
Julie witnessed the growth of the company and the different foundation building that each executive director and team member brought to making Hospice Care of the West a premiere company.
“One of the big contributions made by Deb Robson to the evolution of this company is having these Celebrations focused on helping each other, helping the community, so the care is not just aimed around a family in crisis,” Julie said. “God blesses those kinds of companies, not just all about the money but about the service and compassion. We give the best care possible. It’s nice to have a career that I’m proud of. I feel God led me to hospice.”
Looking back over her life, Julie shared this piece of wisdom with her children.
“Trust God in all that you do. Acknowledge him in all ways and allow God to direct your path. I hope you each find your soul mate, and do not compromise your values. Be true to yourselves and live an authentic life. Find your passion and a career that you love to do. And know that I love you. We can always forgive each other and let the love for our family always be a priority in our lives.”