PARIS - Mitzi Probert's path to a career in writing was nearly as convoluted as that of the protagonist of her children's book, "Esther's Miracle at the Manger."
"I had to make a journey to get to the place that I am today," she said. "I was taking a walk today, thinking about what's brought me to this point. It was prayer, patience, preservation and peace."
As a reporter for The Intelligencer, Probert covered a story of a cow who escaped from a live nativity scene in Toronto, Ohio, in December 1991. The cow, Esther, bolted up Ohio Route 7 and swum the Ohio River, eventually making her way to a farm near Tomlinson Run State Park in New Manchester, W.Va., where she was found on Christmas Eve, 10 days after her escape.
Mitzi Probert of Steubenville, Ohio, signs a copy of her children's book for Patti Rhoades, Tri-State Christian Academy pre-school director. Probert spoke about her book, 'Esther's Miracle at the Manger,' at a recent Coffee With the Author at the Paris Presbyterian Church's The Gathering Place Coffee Shop. -- Summer Wallace-Minger
Probert wouldn't have been able to write the book or to give presentations on it without her background in journalism.
"When I was younger, I wasn't as forthcoming," she said. "I was shy, but being a reporter meant I couldn't be shy. I had a lot of great experiences, I met a lot of wonderful people and was able to do a lot of interesting things and network."
It would be nearly 20 years until Probert would re-tell the story of Esther, but she set her feet on the path to become a writer several years before Esther's dash for freedom, during her days at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she double-majored in zoology and journalism after struggling with the math courses needed to become a veterinarian.
"Freshman year, I needed a lot of prayer, patience and perseverance," she said. "I had to start questioning the path I was on."
After a brief stint as a journalist, Probert moved on to the nonprofit sector, but her interest in writing was re-awakened by the birth of her oldest son in 1995. Dissatisfied with the children's books available, she wrote the first draft of "Miracle at the Manger," but unable to find an illustrator and with a handful of rejection letters, she put the project on the shelf.
She shortly found herself in need of prayer, patience, preservation and peace as her family was ravaged by cancer, with her mother, father and older brother all dying of the disease and herself and her sister both battling breast cancer.
"All prayer is answered," she said. "The answer might be yes, no or maybe. You have to be patient. You need patience, prayer and perseverance to find your peace."
Probert, 11 years younger than her next sibling, grew up on the family farm, establishing a special closeness with her father.
"I followed him (her father) around the farm," she said. "He was a very giving, very generous person. He always believed the best about people. He was such a hard worker."
He was rarely ill - other than an incident in which he broke his shoulder chasing cows - but was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, shortly after Probert's youngest child was born.
"His mind was good until the end, but he just couldn't understand what was happening to him - he had never been sick. I'm glad my oldest had a lot of great times with him," Probert said. "He was his buddy. I have a photo of the two of them, they're walking up the driveway and they've stopped to talk about something."
Shortly after losing her father, a mammogram indicated Probert needed to have additional testing done. Her mother had had breast cancer approximately a decade beforehand, and many of her aunts and uncles also had their own battles with cancer, putting her at high risk.
"My first reaction was, 'will my insurance cover this?'" she said.
Following a lumpectomy, Probert had to wait a week for the results.
"The waiting was the worst of it," she said. "They told me that they had hoped it was better news, but I should think about getting a mastectomy."
Probert began treatment, including a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. During her treatment, she kept a diary and was often accompanied to doctor's appointments by Pinky, a stuffed bear her mother and sons gave her. Before she finished her treatments, she learned her oldest brother also had cancer.
"We were at different phases of chemo at the same time," she said. "I stayed with him between chemo treatments. He was 16 when I was born, and, while he was at home, I was very much his pest of a little sister who got in the way. I got to know him in a different way. We laughed together; we were going through the same things at the same time. He was always so active in the church and with the fire department. I didn't realize how many things he did until his funeral."
Then Probert's sister was diagnosed with cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation treatments, her sister recovered, but, in late 2007, their mother's sight began to fail and an MRI scan found a brain tumor. Probert's mother was terminally ill.
"I didn't understand," she said. "Why was this happening? What is going on? They told us, 'this is what is going to happen, and you have to prepare for it.' Things happen for a reason. There is a path you are on, and things are going to happen to you, both good and bad, and the reasons may not be revealed to you for a long time."
An essay Probert wrote about her mother's death and how she came to peace with it won an Easter essay contest with Christian publisher Xulon Press of Florida in April 2009. She decided to dust off "Miracle at the Manger" and fulfill her dream of becoming an author.
After winning the contest, Probert inquired whether Xulon Press was publishing children's books. The company wasn't, and "Miracle at the Manger" went back on the shelf until December 2009, when Xulon announced it would publish children's books. Probert received a list of potential illustrators, and one name sounded familiar, Ty Schafrath, a former Nickelodeon Animation Studios animator who recently worked on Disney's "The Princess and the Frog."
Schafrath had attended Wesleyan for a year when Probert was a freshman, and when she attended Judson Hills Baptist Camp near Loudonville, Ohio, Schafrath's family operated a canoe livery service which served the camp.
Schafrath agreed to illustrate the book, but the two were stumped by formatting issues until they received assistance from Sharon Bozek of Cortland Manor, N.Y., who agreed to help them format the book.
During their first conversation, Probert told Bozek she had decided to pursue her dreams after surviving cancer and losing so many loved ones to the disease.
"I explained to her about the cancer, and that I wanted to do this for my parents, because they both encouraged me to write," Probert said. "She said, 'I've got to tell you something.'"
That was when she learned that Bozek had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
"She started asking me questions about my journey," Probert said. "I was there at that point because I needed to be at that time. I'm a true believer that things happen in God's time, not on your time. Now I understand why all this had happened. I had come full circle.
"Prayer has been a big part - prayer, patience and perseverance - in what I do. We all wonder, 'what's next?' All I can say is that God has a plan. Things happen for a reason. I love life and I live life. Love the life that you have, it might not be perfect, but it's the only one we have."