Cassie Marka – Bell Bank
So, what’s in a name? A lot when it’s the identity of the almost 10-year-old daughter of Cassie Marka and her husband, Bill. A willow is strong enough to bend, and that’s the name of their little girl.
Willow was diagnosed in utero with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. She has half a heart and wouldn’t have lived nearly this long but for modern medicine. Unfortunately, the best that modern medicine can do is postpone the inevitable deterioration of Willow’s heart—likely requiring the need for future transplantation.
In addition to Willow’s chronic health issues, the Markas have been learning to navigate the world of autism, as both Willow and her younger brother, Crew, were diagnosed at a young age with the spectrum disorder. Between Willow and Crew, there’s, Scarlett, who’s healthy, neurotypical and what Cassie considers “the CEO of Marka, Inc.”
But talking about her unique family situation isn’t difficult for Marka. On the contrary, she’s eager to share how her family has persevered through faith, family, friends and supportive employers like Bell Bank. She’s the company’s vice president and legal counsel of banking.
“My eyes were opened to some very wonderful yet painful facts of life fairly early in my tenure as an attorney and mother,” she tells Vanguard in March from Bell’s headquarters in Fargo, North Dakota. “My focus has always been to try to find the positive in any situation and not ask ‘why me?’”
There have been times she’s asked that question. Though Catholic-raised and a devout Christian, Marka recalls cursing God while seeing baby Willow affixed with wires and tubes in the cardiac ICU, where she spent nearly her first two months. She even admitted to sometimes becoming frustrated at a chaplain named Tim who refused to let the Markas endure the pain of watching alone while their first born “walked the line between heaven and earth,” she says.
“The intimation and pressure Tim must have felt didn’t deter him from jumping into the trenches with us,” Marka says. “Tim really was the bridge that allowed me to keep faith. I learned more about faith in those seven weeks than I had in all my years being raised in the church.”
Tim would later go on to baptize baby Willow the night before what would be her second of three open-heart surgeries.
In sharing her own gospel, Marka says it’s essentially about keeping one’s faith and spreading goodwill. On that latter note, she credits Bell Bank with fostering a workplace committed to its mission to “pay it forward” in the community and beyond.
Marka started her legal career at Zimney Foster, a law firm located in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 2010 after graduating from the North Dakota School of Law. She notes that Zimney Foster was also extremely supportive when she learned of all that would be involved in the first years of Willow’s life. But come 2020 and COVID-19, Marka took a hard look at the difficult reality of her family’s future and realized she had to try to remove some of her already overflowing plate.
“No day is promised for anyone, but it’s a life-changer when you’re told it is likely that you’ll outlive your child,” she says. “You really have to try and live every day as though it is your last. So, when Bell Bank presented me with the opportunity to join, it was like a sign from the big guy: ‘Here’s your chance.’”
As for her day-to-day role, Marka says it’s far from stress-free, but nonetheless rewarding—both personally and professionally. The nation’s sixth largest privately owned bank adheres to its motto of “happy employees, happy customers,” she says.
Then she likes to discuss the Pay It Forward initiative in which each employee gets money—totaling more than $25 million since 2008—to donate as they see fit. When one of Willow’s young classmates passed away last year, Marka felt an obvious connection with the child’s family. Marka was able to pool her Pay It Forward money with that of a number of co-workers and send the family to Disney World.
“My role at Bell Bank allows me to bring my professional role as an attorney and my personal role as a special needs mother together,” she says.
A new vision of success
Though admittedly it’s not how she envisioned her life, Marka reminds how few lives go according to plan. As a UND undergrad and law student, she foresaw a suburban life with the “2.5 children and white picket fence,” and everything seemed on track when she became pregnant in 2013. Then 20 weeks later, tests indicated the baby’s heart defect, but Marka gave birth, she and Bill promising Willow a beautiful life come what may.
In ways that might not be readily apparent, Marka believes something even better than her previous pursuit of success has emerged. Willow is an incredibly smart and funny child who’s attended school and has endeared herself to family, friends, teachers and other students.
She’s inspired the Red River Valley Heart Walk, drawing attention to others with unstable cardiovascular anatomy. Crew and Willow’s autism diagnosis has opened the Markas up to a beautiful world where love is shown through smiles, hugs, laughter and patience as opposed to mere words. She relishes watching Scarlett become one of the most empathetic, understanding and passionate humans, which may be due, in part, to her important role as a special needs sibling.
“Becoming an attorney really became second fiddle to being given the great opportunity to be Willow, Scarlett and Crew’s mom.” she says. “I don’t know if I believe I was necessarily ‘chosen’ for the role, but I know I wouldn’t be the person I am now without them. They’ve taught me so much about life and what really matters.”
It’s been a whirlwind this past decade from months spent in intensive care units at the Mayo Clinic and Boston Children’s Hospital to stays at the Ronald McDonald House in Minnesota—where Marka lived when learning she had passed the bar exam in the summer of 2013.
Marka credits her ability to move forward with her career as an attorney to her mother, Jackie, who both encouraged her to continue with her efforts to become a member of the bar and even went so far as to quit her job to take care of the Marka children full time when Marka started her work as an associate attorney in 2013.
Though she is loving her new role at Bell Bank, Marka admits to missing the courtroom, having practiced primarily in litigation in private law. A competitive sort who played on her high school hockey team and was the only woman on UND Law’s club team, she savored the adrenaline rush on ice or in court.
Now it’s about pursuing different goals.
“I want to be the one who gets into the trenches with others. I want to be a bridge,” she says. “I want to be like Tim.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring II 2023 Edition here.
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