“In his mind, he was going to marry me from the first time he talked to me,” Dr. Genella Jemelka of Stillwater, Minnesota, says of her husband, Jason Jemelka, a former marine currently serving in the national guard.
Genella, formerly a single mother and balancing a chronic illness and a career in academia, wasn’t so sure. Then one phone call changed her mind. Jason pocket-dialed her while taking his two children from a previous marriage on a family outing.
“I still don t know if [the call] was intentional or accidental,” Genella tells PEOPLE. “But I heard their entire time together. They were totally misbehaving, running all over and just being kids – and he never lost his cool.”
Genella did lot let this rare opportunity go to waste – she remained on the phone for 45 minutes.
“It was one of those things where I was like, ‘I should hang up, but I have to listen,’ ” she says. “One of them said, ‘Daddy can I sit on your lap’ and he was like, ‘Both of you can, I have enough room.’ ”
From that point on, Genella says, “I was like, ‘Okay, I might talk to him a little bit.’ ”
However, a flare-up of her illness – she suffers from a combination of Crohn’s disease and pancreatitis so severe that she sometimes loses the ability to ingest food – brought their budding romance to a halt.
“I am notorious for hiding how sick I am,” Genella tells PEOPLE. “If you were to look at me most days, you wouldn’t know I’m any different. … Then I had a relapse and I didn’t talk to [Jason] for a while because I was sick.”
At the time, Genella had a gastric feeding tube inserted as she had lost the ability to eat. When Jason, who showed up unexpectedly, saw her condition, she says, “I thought he’d go running.”
In fact, just the opposite happened. “I don’t know what it was, but his nurturer kicked in and so he was pretty much wanting to take care of me,” she says. “We’ve been pretty much inseparable since then.”
Genella and Jason were married on the 239th Marine Corp. birthday, November 10, 2014.
“He is the man that girls dream about when they’re little girls and they dream about being married,” she says. “He’s a great dad, he’s my best friend, he’s pretty great and right now I hate him because he’s not here.”
After serving in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2010, Jason, 39, enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard. He’s currently in the field with his battalion at Fort Ripley in Little Falls, Minnesota.
Years of enlistment have been difficult for the family, especially the children. “It’s been a long and hard battle for his children and I’ve held his hand through every bit of that.” Genella says. “We’re there for each other.”
While Jason is away, Genella is at home, fighting to keep the couple’s hundred-year-old home from falling down around her. After her illness forced her to stop working as a professor and college administrator, Genella emptied her savings to support her family.
“When you go from two people living off a savings to five people living off a savings, it gets eaten up pretty quickly,” she says. “And so we had to make choices about what bills to pay, what to fix, what to do … The mortgage wasn’t getting paid, the bills weren’t getting paid and we were struggling to get food on the table.”
In March, the couple received notice that their house would go into foreclosure in 90 days. Then they learned that their home is sinking.
“Not only are we financially drowning, but our only asset, our house, is not livable,” Genella says.
With nowhere left to turn, Genella started a GoFundMe page asking for donations or construction help needed to get the house back in living condition. With this help, the family was able to catch up on their mortgage and avoid foreclosure.
The repairs, however, are still desperately needed. Rebuilding Together has started a campaign to locate volunteers to help with construction while a Minnesota crowdfunding site Barnraisings is campaigning to fund it.