Karen Asfeldt and Toby, her certified therapy dog, have volunteered at Ava's House since it opened in October 2017. Her connection to the hospice facility has grown stronger over the years.

Ava’s House volunteer, donor shares connection to hospice facility

June 24, 2019

Karen Asfeldt knows just how important the gift of time at Ava’s House by Sanford can be.

Karen and her husband, Thomas Asfeldt, director of cancer services at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, were among a family of donors who helped make the multigenerational inpatient hospice facility possible. Their generosity in the early stages of the ongoing Gift of Time campaign supported the construction of Ava’s House, which opened in October 2017.

Ever since, Karen and her certified therapy dog, Toby, have volunteered at Ava’s House, sharing their time with patients and staff. When Karen’s dad, Norris Meland, later entered Ava’s House during the final weeks of his life, she found meaning in every moment and ultimately, a stronger connection to the facility’s mission.

In this recent interview, Karen reflects on her passion for Ava’s House.


What inspired your support for Ava’s House?

A friend once told me we go through life from infancy to infancy. In other words, we enter the world helpless and needing care, and we often exit it the same way – in need of love, care and compassion, with an added desire for dignity. Death – like life – is a journey. And for many, it is the final act of healing. Jesus teaches us in the parable of Matthew 25 about caring for strangers, the sick, and covering those in need of shelter. He says, “Whatever you have done for the least of these … you did for me.” Providing a place for people to live out the end of their life in a positive way is an extension of living out our faith.

Karen and Thomas Asfeldt


How did you feel when the facility opened?

We were pleased to be a small part of a family of generous donors. I don’t think many people realize how special Ava’s House is. Right here in Sioux Falls, we have a facility that not only cares for adults but is only matched in its ability to provide pediatric hospice care by three other places in the nation! We have access to a beautiful, highly functional, amazingly staffed “home away from home.”


As a volunteer, what impact do you hope to have on patients and families?

I hope to bring these attributes – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and gentleness – into a time that can be emotionally trying for people. For some people, Toby and I offer companionship and a distraction from their situation or loneliness. For others, we are a listening ear as they speak about things that are on their mind. Toby always offers a calming effect by allowing people to physically interact with him.

Karen walks Toby through the halls of Ava’s House.


Your father was cared for at Ava’s House. Did that experience change your interactions with patients?

Having journeyed alongside someone in their last weeks, I have a better understanding of what people at Ava’s House are walking through. I have less fear of the unknown, and more willingness to enter into someone else’s story. I know that it is a privilege to be invited into others’ grief.

Each time I leave Ava’s House, I know that I may not get to see these people again. I stop at the guest book to skim the tributes that have been written by family members. I say a prayer for those who have lost their loved one, and I remember that there is a stone in the memory jar that says, “Norris Meland – my Dad, my Hero.”


How did Ava’s House make a difference in your father’s final days?

The palliative care team approach here at Ava’s House involved physicians, nurse practitioners and registered nurses who worked to improve Dad’s quality of life in his final weeks. That was really important and made a true difference for him and for us. It may seem small to others, but it was a big joy for us just to see him enjoying one of his favorite foods, ice cream, for example.

Dad was a social person, with a grateful heart and with many connections to people. Ava’s House provided a warm gathering place, where extended family and many friends could stop in to visit and say their goodbyes.

Karen holds a picture of her with her father, Norris Meland.


Do you have any other thoughts about Ava’s House and what makes it such a special place?

When Dad chose not to have treatment for his advanced cancer, and palliative care began, I knew that I wanted him to live out his last days being cared for at Ava’s House. No matter who you are, Ava’s House is a place for you. Whether you’re from the city or the country, have a big family or no family, are experiencing a long illness or a recent diagnosis, Ava’s House offers a low stress and supportive environment for living your final days or weeks.


Looking to the future

An outpouring of community support helped raise $10 million to construct Ava’s House, but now its future depends on you.

Your gift today will support a $5 million endowment to help sustain expert caregiving and services such as spiritual care, Child Life and patient assistance at Ava’s House.

To help us reach our endowment goal and extend the gifts of time, compassion and love to generations of patients and families, please contact one of our gift officers:

Learn more about Ava’s House and the Gift of Time campaign.