Keith Bonnstetter believes God gave him a gift that helped his family during a difficult time. Now, he often uses that gift to capture milestones in other families’ lives.
A member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport, Bonnstetter has for 10 years run a business cutting personalized paper snowflakes highlighting the hobbies, faith, family or other features of recipients’ lives.
But the Spanish teacher at Bettendorf High School says his creations are “just pieces of paper” unless he tells the story of how he started making them.
That story involves a journey of faith and a medical struggle with his daughter, Claire, now 14, who began suffering medical problems in the early months of her life. Her gross motor skills were delayed; she didn’t sit alone until two weeks before her first birthday and couldn’t walk without a walker at nearly age 4.
In May 1999, a test showed her nerve impulses were traveling at just 10 miles per hour. Normal speed is 1,700 mph. Keith and Marsha, his wife, later took Claire to the Mayo Clinic. There the child received a diagnosis of Dejerrine-Sottas Disease, a progressive nerve disorder that causes loss of function below the elbows and knees. People afflicted with the disorder often must rely on a wheelchair by their 30s, Keith discovered.
He struggled: “I’m her dad; I wanted to fix her.”
Marsha, who’d long been praying for her daughter and for a sense of peace, was skeptical of the diagnosis. “I knew in my heart that Claire did not have this disease,” she said.
The Bonnstetters heard encouraging news the following September, when they traveled to Peoria, Ill., for a talk by a priest who had a glove of Padre Pio, an Italian saint and mystic. The priest, Father Paul Maria Sigl, blessed Claire with Padre Pio’s glove and told her parents she’d be healed, but not yet.
“We were dancing in the halls afterward for joy,” Keith said.
Ten days later, he and Marsha took their daughter to Dr. J. Richard Burns at East Moline Chiropractic Clinic. After taking X-rays, Burns told the couple Claire’s problems resulted from a neck bone pressing on her spinal cord. He gave her an adjustment, but cautioned the Bonnstetters not to expect change immediately.
The next day, though, Claire began walking without her walker. She rode her tricycle several blocks, when she previously “could barely make it to the end of the driveway,” Marsha said.
Over the next few weeks, Claire continued to improve. “We turned to God again, thanking him for the wonderful, beautiful child that he had given us,” Marsha said. “We then pointed out that she is a little more expensive than most, and we asked for a little more money to go along with her.”
She and Keith believe a Medicaid-related waiver was God’s first response. “The second response was much more remarkable,” Marsha said.
In late fall, Keith began cutting paper snowflakes featuring the Holy Family, Santa, the Grinch and other designs to display in the family’s living room. He then took some to Washington Middle School and Lyons Middle School in Clinton to show colleagues, who asked if they could buy his creations.
“I thought, are you people crazy? It’s just paper,” Keith recalled. But he began selling snowflakes with designs from lighthouses to birdhouses to pet dogs, all at his acquaintances’ requests. Word spread, and as Keith sold more snowflakes, more bills got paid.
Now, he said he spends all his free time from October to December fulfilling orders for his business, Clear Visions: Personalized Paper Cuttings — named after Claire, whose name means “clear.” During Christmastime, snowflakes he donated as a “gift back to God” hang at St. Paul the Apostle Church.
Keith’s talent is earning national exposure. Guideposts magazine will feature him in a Christmas issue, and last month, he traveled to New York to discuss his craft on “The Martha Stewart Show” for an episode Marsha said will air May 7 or 10.
At home, Keith said, Claire is doing well and getting treated for scoliosis. “She has a beautiful spiritual life.” Once when X-rays offered bad news about her curved spine, she responded: “I wonder what God wants me to learn from this,” he recalled.
That response reflects an attitude her father worked to adopt during Claire’s early struggles. “I had to let go and truly let God take over… It was difficult. At the same time, I think God did give me the grace to handle it.”
His daughter’s recovery and his success selling snowflakes were eye-opening, he said. “When I look back, I can definitely see God’s hand in everything.”
For more information, visit www.clearvisionssnowflakes.com.
Printed with permission from The Catholic Messenger, newspaper for the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa.