One Last Wish to Make a Difference

In her final days, a local hospice patient helped raise $140,000 for Ava’s House


As an artist, Mary Buckmiller spent her life inspiring others through her creativity, her love of learning, her passion for the outdoors and her artwork.

But it was during her final days — when she sparked an unprecedented movement of kindness — that she inspired us the most.

This is the story of one woman’s dying wish to a make a difference — a beautiful reminder that, even in life’s final moments, we can leave a legacy of light, hope and love.

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After battling cancer for a number of years, Mary Buckmiller knew when the fight was over. Wanting to spend her final days in peace and comfort, she reached out to Ava’s House for help and guidance on hospice care.

With a focus on palliative medicine, Ava’s House offers 24-hour compassionate care for patients of all ages, including pediatric, adult and geriatric patients. It is one of only four hospice facilities in the U.S. to offer care for pediatric patients

“Once she got to Ava’s House, she was so much more relaxed,” her sister, Lourene, recalled. “It was very private there, very quiet, which was good. Mary felt at home, she had her paints and supplies in her room, and she said the staff felt like family.”

“It was all the little things they did that made all the difference,” Lourene said. “The staff took time to have conversations with her, they prayed with her. It meant so much to Mary, and to our family, to have that compassionate care during her final days.”

Inspired by her caregivers, Mary developed an idea for a final way she could make a difference. She wanted to leave a gift to Ava’s House, and she wanted to inspire generosity for future hospice patients and families. To put the idea in motion, Mary eventually connected with the Sanford Health Foundation to establish the Ava’s House Hospice Match Challenge.

Mary Buckmiller, Ava's House Fundraiser
“It’s all about the living, it’s not about the dying. The care at Ava’s House has been the ultimate meaning of comfort. It has meant so much to me.”
Mary Buckmiller


Mary’s goal was three-fold: She wanted to match all gifts up to $50,000, she wanted one donor to receive a piece of her artwork, and she wanted to witness the completion of the challenge before the end of her life.

The Foundation staff acted quickly to share Mary’s story and the Ava’s House Hospice Match Challenge. Donors stepped forward immediately and within 14 days, the challenge was met.

Stacy Hackett, a major gifts officer for the Sanford Health Foundation, met with Mary at Ava’s House to deliver the news — her generosity had sparked a ripple of kindness that would serve as a lifeline for future hospice patients and families.

“There were tears of joy — she was so happy,” Hackett said.

Three days later, on Friday, Nov. 17, Mary passed away at Ava’s House, surrounded by her loved ones.

After her death, Mary’s family said they continued to feel support and compassion from the team at Ava’s House.

“After she passed away, we were reassured that we could stay with her as long as we wanted. We weren’t pressured to make calls or get things moving right away,” Lourene said. “And when we did eventually leave, all the staff lined up to acknowledge us — to say goodbye to us and to extend their sympathy. That meant so much.”

Even after Mary’s passing, gifts for the Ava’s House challenge continued to come in. In total, the challenge raised $140,000, ensuring future patients and families can continue to access to the comprehensive care and services that make Ava’s House the special place it is — services such as spiritual care, patient support and expert caregiving.

Over her 76 years, Mary touched countless lives through her art, her commitment to kids and education, her work in agriculture, and through her genuine kindness, Hackett said. And through the Ava’s House Hospice Match Challenge, she will touch countless more.

“Mary dedicated her life to caring for and inspiring others — and through her final act of generosity, her beautiful legacy of care will live on to help future patients and families,” Hackett said. “What an extraordinary thing to witness. We’re so grateful to Mary and her family, and to all those who supported this effort.”

About Ava’s House

Ava’s House, an acute-level, in-patient hospice facility in Sioux Falls, provides 24-hour nursing care to patients of all ages in a home-like environment.

Ava’s House was made possible by our many donors who contributed generously to the $10 million construction phase of the Gift of Time campaign. Now that this state-of-the-art hospice facility is complete, we have the chance to shape its legacy and extend the gifts of time, compassion and love to generations of patients and families.

Make a gift to support the mission of Ava’s House by picking “Sioux Falls Ava’s House Spendable Fund” or in Mary’s memory on the Ava’s House Hospice Match Challenge page.

In recognition of her leadership gift to the Ava’s House Hospice Match Challenge, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin received “The Heifer,” Mary Buckmiller’s final painting. Mary’s siblings presented the painting earlier this year.