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Friends fight cancer with walk

Evy Keppers, 9, left, and Kiana Starstead, 10, visit Bear Creek Park July 11. The two fifth-graders are preparing for their second annual Fighting for Friends walk/run to fight childhood cancer. It will start and end at the park on Moccasin Mike Road. (Maria Lockwood / mloclwood@superiortelegram.com)

A pair of elementary-school students are back in the fundraising groove, preparing to raise more money for kids with cancer during their second annual "Fighting for Friends" 1-mile walk/run.

Last year's walk brought hundreds of people together along the Osaugie Trail and collected $3,700.52.

"That was a surprise," said Evy Keppers, 9, of Superior. "That was the most money I've ever held in my hands before."

"We took turns holding the money," said Kiana Starstead, 10.

They donated $2,755.70 to the St. Baldrick's Foundation, which supports cancer research. The rest was used for a shopping spree. The girls bought toys and games for the Erick Peter Person Children's Cancer Center at Essentia Health.

The two, who will be fifth graders at Cooper Elementary School this fall, weren't motivated by a relative with cancer. The idea for the walk formed during a lull in a play date when Kiana asked "What should we do?"

Evy suggested finding a cure for cancer, Kiana countered with a fundraiser for cancer research.

After three hours of brainstorming — choosing a name, planning the walk, drafting a letter to the mayor and outlining a flier — they let Evy's mom, Sheri Keppers, in on their idea.

Both families threw their support behind the girls, who took the project reins. Local businesses and organizations joined in; supporters came to walk and donate.

"I think it's amazing," said Dr. Ross Perko, pediatric oncologist for Essentia Health. "I think 'What a great example for adults.' You have a good idea and you just go for it."

The girls consulted with Perko about donating the proceeds from the walk. He was hooked from the start.

"I get super-charged up when you see the innocence of a child coming up with an idea for helping people," Perko said.

The girls have remained in touch with Perko. A few weeks ago, they stopped by the cancer center and asked the social worker if the kids going through transfusions would appreciate having fidget spinners to keep them occupied. The social worker had no idea what the girls were talking about at first, but agreed.

Days later, Evy and Kiana showed up with three boxes full of the gadgets.

"They're thinking ahead," Perko said.

This year, the young organizers are planning a "bigger and better" event for July 29. The run/walk along the Osaugie Trail will start at 10 a.m. at Bear Creek Park, which is on Moccasin Mike Road beside the animal shelter. Walkers will receive free water and the first 50 finishers will receive carnations. Strollers and dogs are welcome.

Participants can enjoy hot dogs and pop, a bake sale, a bounce house and bean bag tournament in the park following the run. T-shirts will also be available for purchase.

The cost is $4 per person, $10 for a group of four, free if needed.

""Come even if you can't afford it," Evy said. "Even by coming, you're helping kids with cancer. Even if you're participating, you're making them happy by doing this for them."

This second walk holds a lot more meaning for the girls.

"Last year, we wanted to do this so much I didn't think it was possible to want it more," Evy said.

But they do.

"Last year we didn't know many kids with cancer," Kiana said.

When they began planning the inaugural walk, the girls entered a float in the Superior Fourth of July parade. Two young cancer survivors rode on the float with them. Learning about their experiences with cancer was eye-opening, the Superior girls said.

This year, one of those children is once again fighting cancer. Dexter Ojeda, 10, of Duluth is battling neuroblastoma for the second time. There is no cure.

The girls intend to earmark 10 percent of the walk's proceeds to Dexter's family, who have also set up a youcaring crowdfunding campaign to help the 10-year-old reach his bucket list goals. Dexter's list ranges from naming a star and swimming with the sharks to riding on an elephant, being a Pokemon for a day and going to as many museums as possible. Learn more at www.youcaring.com/dexterjamesstgeorgeojeda-800973.

St. Baldrick's will get 70 percent of the walk/run proceeds this year, and another 20 percent will go toward the Erick Peter Person center.

"We're going to try to get them an iPad because somebody stole one from the cancer center," Kiana said.

They also plan to purchase Wii games for the kids.

Perko said that the cancer center gets up to 20 new diagnoses of childhood cancer per year. The staff also sees a lot of cases of suspected cancer and works with children dealing with blood-related issues.

Volunteers have stepped up to provide music therapy, bubble activities and play items for these young patients, a chance to enjoy childhood activities.

"These girls are a great example," Perko said.

He encouraged everyone with a good idea for how they can help to act on it.

"That's one of the neat things being in this community," Perko said. "Patients can get care from friends and neighbors."

Those who can't attend the walk/run on July 29 can donate online at www.stbaldricks.org/fundraisers/FightingForFriends, to the Fighting for Friends account with Superior Community Credit Union at 2817 Tower Ave. or through the Fighting for Friends Facebook page.

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