“Joshua! Get the ball from the goalie,” Gino Zalunardo yelled from the sidelines as the opposing team advanced. His son, the team captain, paused, bent forward and grabbed his knees. Something was obviously wrong, but the game continued. He was fourteen and full of life, loved hunting and fishing and dreamed of being a youth pastor.
The after-the-game meal at Taco Bell found Joshua with his lip sagging, warning of a potentially serious problem. The CAT scan that the emergency room doctor in LaGrange, Georgia, ordered revealed a devastating problem. At 2:00 a.m. the next morning, Gino knew that his son had a tumor. At 8:00 a.m. he knew that his son had brain stem glioma, a cancer that starts in the brain or spinal cord tissue and spreads throughout the nervous system, and the doctor had told him that Joshua might have a year to live.
“Crying, I went outside to talk with God,” Gino said. “I leaned against the wall and said, ‘God! Why is there a tumor in my son?’ I heard the Holy Spirit say, ‘I am going to take your son.’ I began rebuking those thoughts. It was not until after his death that I remembered them and they were a comfort to me because they reassured me that God was and is in control.”
Within three days after the diagnosis, Joshua’s fingers were drawn. Like a vine wrapping around a bush taking its life, the cancer grew.
As the chemo and radiation treatments began and continued, their church fasted and prayed, knowing that Jesus is the Healer. “I believed God could heal him.” Gino said. “I never disappointed God with my faith. I asked Joshua’s friends to write healing scriptures and paste them on a board…. I started Joshua on a regimen of vegetables rather than allowing him to eat processed foods…. I knew that God is greater than cancer.”
“One day Joshua was having radiation,” Gino said, “when some people entered the room with a therapy dog. It jumped onto his bed and started licking him. Though Joshua was semi-conscious, he started laughing and giggling. I saw the unconditional love between animals and humans and understood their power to bring peace, joy and inspiration to people.”
On a Tuesday at 9:00 p.m., Joshua died. Fifteen hundred students, coaches, teachers, administrators, friends and Channel 5 News team attended Joshua’s funeral where Joshua’s father was the primary speaker. Gino placed the camouflage jacket that Joshua often wore to school and hunting and fishing over a chair. “A year ago who would have thought Joshua would be diagnosed with cancer…. He has finished his course,” he said.
Though it is not traditional to give an altar call at a funeral, Gino gave an altar call. Six hundred and fifty students, teachers, principals, coaches and friends surrounded Joshua’s coffin at the altar and gave their lives to the Lord. “The Holy Spirit said to do this and I had to do it,” Gino explained. “Joshua’s life was not in vain. He fulfilled his dream of being a youth pastor.”
Sorting and packing his son’s clothes including his hunting vests that held so many memories was no easy task. It was the Tee-ball trophy that evoked the memories that were the most difficult.
“I collapsed,” Gino said. “I thought, ‘God, I can’t do this anymore.’ I wanted out of the pain. I looked at my gun case and thought suicide was the answer. It was then that I heard Joshua speak, ‘Dad, you’ve just begun.’ I got up and wanted to help people again. Even then, I was so depressed I didn’t want to wake up in the mornings.”
Trying to find peace, Gino began driving rgulary from South Georgia, through Asheville, N.C., to backpack on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After a couple of years had passed, Gino decided to take an alternate route home one Sunday. Realizing a tire was going flat, he stopped at a Walmart in Blairsville, Georgia, to get it fixed.
“As I stood looking at the mountains while they fixed my tire, my heart opened and for the first time, I said, ‘I can get well.’ Two weeks later, I camped in a tent at Track Rock. Shortly afterward I rented a cabin and started doing landscaping for people in the area. I needed the mountains and streams and the sweetness of the mountain people. I put flyers on cars and doors, and my business grew.”
There in Blairsville the vision that had begun at Joshua’s bedside began to develop. It would be a place of healing for medically and developmentally challenged children and adults. As Gino began to give his testimony and share his vision for the Dream Ranch, newly found friends began to encourage him, even donating some animals: Tank, the two-year-old, gorilla colored horse; Gus, the Belgian; Sky, the paint horse; Buck, the buckskin and Jack, the donkey. He also has seven dogs and many bunnies, alpacas and goats are loaned on special occasions. The ranch also has a small train for kids and a wagon that makes it wheelchair friendly and allows riders to guide the horses.
“Rosco, the cow; Jack, the donkey and horses are not a typical ministry, but what joy they bring!”
Using the funds he has earned from landscaping, Gino rents the property with the intent to purchase it. Volunteers are helping improve the ranch by building corrals and other structures.
Though many have already enjoyed the experience of Joshua’s dream the Joshua Dream Ranch ribbon cutting will be April 30th. The ranch will open one Saturday per month from May 1st through mid-November. For special appointments call 706 333 5363.
Donations may be made at www.jdranch.org or by mail to Joshua Dream Ranch – Building Champions, P.O. Box 1004, Blairsville, Georgia 30514.
Published in Developing Horizons Magazine