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Valentine’s Day special feature: LOCAL LOVE STORIES

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Grace Frost
Grace Frost
Hi, I'm Grace Frost. I was honoured to report for the Review as their Digital Journalist from mid-2022 to the beginning of 2024. Ive since made a move to the Herald Sun.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day today, Review journalist Grace Frost talked to three couples from the region about their love stories.

The couples have endured plenty of good times, but also tragedies and hardships along the way, showing resilience and true love to help them get through life together.

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Endurance through hardship

Vivian and Jim Jankovski could have never imagined the life they would lead together when they met over 20 years ago.

The couple started their concrete cutting business in 2008 and ‘tied the knot’ a few years later before everything began to ‘turn upside down’.

Ms Jankovski’s father passed away in 2011, her mother diagnosed and passing with cancer only six months later.

While devastated by the loss of her parents, Ms Jankovski found out she had melanoma.

“I just hung up the phone [on the doctor], and I rang Jim. I just was screaming, ‘it’s cancer, it’s cancer’,” she said.

“I was really, really fortunate that [it could be removed].”

Only three years later, Mr Jankovski had a heart attack, just weeks out from the Mickleham-Kilmore bushfires in 2014.

While Mr Jankovski was in recovery, the family was evacuated from their home.

“We lost 40 sheep, we had a chesnut orchard that was about six years old that we lost, a cherry tree orchard,” Mr Jankovski said.

Despite the hardships they have endured thus far, none could compare to the call they received on September 21, 2017.

Mr Jankovski’s eldest son, who was 18 at the time, was driving his brother, 16, and sister, 11, to school along Darraweit Road when tragedy struck.

“They left home, they drove six kilometres down the road, it was a windy morning,” Mr Jankovski said.

“Just as he approached the bend, he was [trying to fix a makeshift window covering], and Ben goes ‘Jake watch out,’

“He was going to the left of the barrier, and to avoid hitting the left he oversteered and lost control, hit the barrier on the right and rolled the Hilux over that.”

The Hilux rolled 20 times, impacted six times, and left Mr Jankovki’s son Ben permanently paralysed from the chest down, and Jake and Sienna with physical injuries.

“We literally jumped in the car and took two minutes to get there […] Everything just happened so quickly,” Ms Jankovski said.

“We’ve never been angry at [Jake] […] not Ben, not Sienna, no one has ever held any grudge.”

Mr and Ms Jankovski describe Ben as ‘an absolute champion’, who after therapy now plays wheelchair AFL for Collingwood Football Club and works at the club as the disability inclusion officer.

Vivian and Jim Jankovski, middle, with their family.

Having endured tough times as a couple, Mr and Ms Jankovski said the love they have for each other, their children and extended family had ‘got them through’.

“How I’ve sort of dealt with it, is acceptance. By blaming anyone, you’re not going to achieve anything,” Mr Jankovski said.

“Everything takes time, even mental health. You can’t fix it overnight, but you [can] chip away at it slowly.”

Ms Jankovski said throughout their marriage, the couple have tried to approach all problems with the mindset of ‘let’s find the solution’.

“I think at the beginning, it was just a matter of ‘just keep putting one foot in front of the other’,” she said.

“There were lots of moments where I felt so alone, even though we were together, I felt so alone. And it wasn’t until you’d start communicating and then realise they’re actually feeling the same, and suddenly you don’t feel so alone.

“Be kind to each other, I think couples forget to do that. And be human – humans are built to love.”

Language of love

Sandra Sleep was working as a wig maker in New York on September 11, 2001.

Damian Sleep was employed at radio station 3AK with Derryn Hinch in Melbourne, and was awoken by a call in the middle of the night, insisting he come into the office immediately.

New York’s World Trade Centre had been hit by a commercial aeroplane – America was under attack by terrorists.

Ms Sleep, who was born deaf, was dismissed from work early after news broke.

“Being deaf, and everyone [being] in a frenzy, she said nobody was giving directions,” Mr Sleep said.

“All the subways were shut, Sandra decided that she’d walk home, and as she was looking at the tower burning, it collapsed and the rubble came up the street and over the top of her.”

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in 2011, Ms Sleep commented on a social media tribute post, and Mr Sleep replied.

The pair began talking online, and eventually, Ms Sleep decided to visit Mr Sleep in Australia.

“[When Sandra visited], I took her to Torquay and around [that region] and into Melbourne. I would drive with my knees and a notepad on the steering wheel, writing notes to her, and she’d write notes back,” Mr Sleep said.

“When she went home, we talked on Skype, I said ‘if you’re coming back, and we’re to be together, you’ve gotta teach me [sign language] because this is the only way that we’re gonna get through this’.”

After the events of 9/11 brought Damian and Sandra Sleep together, Mr Sleep began learning sign language to communicate with his to-be-wife. ​

Ms Sleep spent ‘endless nights’ teaching Mr Sleep American sign language, ASL, over Skype, and later Australian sign language, Auslan, which he now describes as being ‘second nature’.

“If I was going to have a relationship with Sandra, I had to learn,” Mr Sleep said.

The couple were married in 2016, and despite the challenges they have faced, Mr Sleep said knowing Sandra was ‘just amazing’.

“One of the things that captivated me when I first saw her was her zest for life,” Mr Sleep said.

“She is the most beautiful soul in the world … People are drawn to her like a magnet.”

When Ms Sleep first moved to the country, she wasn’t able to work for two years, so she spent her time volunteering at a wildlife rescuers.

The couple both still work as rescuers today, often nursing kangaroos in their own home.

Mr Sleep said patience and a willingness to learn has helped his relationship with Ms Sleep prosper.

“Sandra always says to everyone ‘he’s my husband, he’s my life, he’s my ears’,” Mr Sleep said.

50 years of support

Tracey McNeill describes her parents Steve and Anne Mouser as ‘a true testament to what love is’.

She said her parents were ‘typical Aussie battlers’, who throughout their marriage have prioritised hard work to support their four children.

“I remember times when they would go without meals to feed us kids,” Ms McNeill said.

“Back when we were younger, dad was working 15-16 hour days [in his business] just to provide for the family, when interest rates were 17 and 18 per cent.

“My parents raised us [with the understanding] you’ve got to work hard to get somewhere in life and for your family.”

The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year – a significant milestone for more reasons than one.

Fifteen years ago, Mr Mouser was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, and is terminally ill.

“They can’t tell him how long he’s got, basically, but he’s at a point now where he had to give up work, obviously quite a few years ago. He’s on oxygen pretty much all the time,” Ms McNeill said.

“He’s determined that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and he’s defied all the odds.

“He keeps picking a new milestone. Last year, he said, I want to get to our 50th anniversary.”

Steve and Anne Mouser celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year.

After looking after her own mother until she passed five years ago, Ms Mouser is now her husband’s full-time carer.

“Mum always puts everyone else before herself. Not just for her mother and her husband, but all the family,” Ms McNeill said.

The couple moved from their family home of 38 years to Kilmore 12 months ago to be closer to their family who live in the area.

Ms McNeill said it was her parents support of one another that had inspired the strength of their marriage, and now the strength of their family.

“Mum and dad have always said to us ‘you need to communicate, if you don’t communicate, you’re not going to work it out’,” Ms McNeill said.

“They’re not perfect, but they support each other in everything and they’re always there for each other, whatever life throws at them, they don’t give up easily.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without my parents. They’ve always supported us in everything.”

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