Caden Willie is a Superior High School senior, a Spartan swimmer, a member of the Youth Leadership Program and National Honor Society. He's been accepted to the University of North Dakota, where the 17-year-old plans to train to become a pilot.
The Superior teen is also a cancer survivor.
When he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma as a sophomore, the community rallied around Willie. A fellow SHS swimmer invited the public to a "Cram the Pool for Caden" fundraiser. Family friends delivered home-cooked meals. Students at Great Lakes Elementary, where Willie's mother Kim works, created a paper chain, built with donated dimes, that stretched 5,705 feet.
"Made my wife cry every morning she went to work," said Willie's father, Ed. "It was unreal."
Now, the teen is paying it forward. For his senior project, he's hosting a pancake breakfast fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Wisconsin. It takes place from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 26, at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Superior's Billings Park neighborhood.
"I wanted to do something that was meaningful, where I could look back in the future and think like, woah, I'm glad I did that," Caden Willie said.
The cause is important to the entire family.
"We owe so much to Make-A-Wish that the bigger the success this is, the happier we'll be," said Ed Willie, a seventh-grade science teacher at Superior Middle School.
Minutes after the family received Caden Willie's diagnosis at the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital, a social worker sat down to talk with the family about Make-A-Wish.
"Caden instantly started thinking about his options and it was so positive that, on that day of such horrible news, it really changed his day around and really changed his focus to something to look forward to," Ed Willie said.
Following four cycles of chemotherapy and radiation, the family of four traveled to French Polynesia in June 2017 through Make-A-Wish. They snorkeled along a coral reef, swam with sharks and rays, rode a jet ski and stayed in a hut over the water.
"After spending a whole year when I was feeling sick and not obviously in a great place, I wanted to get away from Superior and Duluth and forget about normal, everyday life for a while," Caden Willie said. "It just seemed like a nice place to spend that time."
The water was warm and beautiful, his father said, and the family was able to relax and enjoy each other's company.
The pancake fundraiser is a way to help other children and say thank you to the community, Caden Willie said. He's hoping to raise at least $1,500.
"That should be enough to fund one kid's entire wish, pretty much, from what I hear," he said. "It feels good still to help in any way we possibly can to give back because we're so grateful."
The event is also a chance to let everyone know how the senior's doing.
"I always feel like he kind of belongs to the community now because they've treated us so well," Ed Willie said. "People want an update. People deserve one."
The teen is in remission, and his prognosis is good.
"Every little doctor visit they find something to keep an eye on, but the doctor is pretty confident that this is behind him," Ed Willie said.
He and wife Kim are pitching in to help put on the breakfast, which will include pancakes, sausage, juice and coffee. The cost is $8 for adults, $5 for children age 12 and under. Tickets will be available at the door, or in advance through family members.
"I think it's going to be fun and it's going to a good cause," Caden Willie said.
The nonprofit Make-A-Wish, founded in 1980, grants a wish to a child battling a critical illness every 34 minutes, on average. The Wisconsin chapter has provided wishes to more than 6,500 children and their families since it was founded in 1984.
"I would like the community to look into Make-A-Wish more and maybe consider donating after the pancake breakfast," Caden Willie said. "Not necessarily immediately after, but just in the future if they want to donate to something I want them to consider Make-A-Wish, because it can change a family's life in a really hard time."
Visit the Facebook event "Caden Willie's Senior Project-Pancake Breakfast for Make a Wish," at facebook.com/events/1970310459936844, for more information.