Family makes new memories at Ava’s House

FFA adviser spends final days fighting cancer at homelike care facility.

By: Kay Todd .

John Rist and his family
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

John Rist enriched hundreds of lives as a small-town agricultural education teacher and Future Farmers of America (FFA) adviser. His students knew him as “Papa Rist,” the teacher they could turn to with any problem.

After a two-year battle with cancer, Rist died in March 2018. He left behind a loving community in Viborg, South Dakota, and three daughters, Noelle Swanson, Jenna Rist and Alicia Rist. He passed on a love for agriculture and education to his children, who followed in his footsteps to become FFA members and teachers.

“He lived a very full life,” Jenna Rist said. “If you needed a hug or someone to talk you into working a little bit harder, he was always there to do that for everybody.”

John Rist was diagnosed in the summer of 2015. By that time, the cancer had already spread to his spinal column and lymph nodes. His doctors recommended radiation and chemotherapy treatments for pain management, but the family knew there would be no cure for the advanced disease.

He continued to teach, making an impact on even more students. The family made the most of their remaining time together, checking items off his bucket list, including meeting his first grandchild and traveling to Machu Picchu, Peru.

“We felt like all the time we got with him was bonus time,” Jenna Rist said.

‘Best place for him’

As John Rist’s disease progressed, Ava’s House by Sanford helped the family continue to make new memories together. The new acute-level, in-patient hospice facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, provides 24-hour nursing care in a homelike environment.

“We just immediately felt like it was going to feel better and be more comfortable for all of us,” Jenna Rist said. “He felt that it was the best place for him to be.”

After helping her father get settled at Ava’s House, Jenna Rist, who lives in California, returned home. Being away from her father was difficult, but knowing he was in the best place possible was comforting.

“It was reassuring to come home knowing he was being taken care of very well,” she said. Her sisters and other family members who live closer to Sioux Falls could visit more often.

With communal areas and a small living room attached to each patient room, John Rist could comfortably socialize with his many visitors including students, friends and, of course, family. Even his two young grandsons, Stetsen and Corbin, could run and play.

The Rist family watched the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games together in the Walsh Gathering Space and congregated around the large dining room table, putting together puzzles for hours.

The South Dakota FFA Foundation also honored the Rists as the FFA Family of the Year for their long-term involvement in the program and presented the award in John Rist’s room at Ava’s House.

“The award recognizes a family who has gone above and beyond in their contributions,” Jenna Rist said. “When someone put in the nomination for my dad and his family, people stopped nominating other families. He would never ask for that recognition, but he was happy for the whole family to be recognized in that way.”

At Ava’s House, John Rist found a comfortable and peaceful environment and died surrounded by his loving family. Even Jenna Rist was able to be in Sioux Falls during her father’s final days.

Funded through donations

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

Gifts made today support a $5 million endowment to sustain the comprehensive patient care and services, including spiritual care, child life, patient assistance and expert caregiving.

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

More stories about Ava’s House