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Smile wide: Friends, strangers rally for Ali and all kids facing cancer (VIDEO)

PETERSBURG, N.D. -- It was the seventh and eighth graders' turn to see and hear Ali Borgen's story, and they were riveted. Images of a smiling, impishly playful child danced on a screen in the school lunchroom, a child who would be about their ag...

Farrah Heitkamp
Farrah Heitkamp, 15, talks about her friend, Ali Borgen, who died a year ago from cancer, at a presentation for students at Dakota Prairie School in Petersburg, N.D. (photo by Eric Hylden)

PETERSBURG, N.D. -- It was the seventh and eighth graders' turn to see and hear Ali Borgen's story, and they were riveted.

Images of a smiling, impishly playful child danced on a screen in the school lunchroom, a child who would be about their age if she had lived, if she had not been stricken with cancer.

Ali was Farrah Heitkamp's friend, and Farrah, 15, told her friend's story Wednesday to schoolmates at Dakota Prairie High School in Petersburg, near where Ali's family had lived the first years of her life, before the family moved to Grand Forks.

Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of Ali Borgen's death.

Farrah told the story of Ali's life and death through a video she made, first to seniors and juniors, then to sophomores and freshmen, and finally to the younger students.

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Each time, after introducing the video, she stepped to the side and took a deep breath, then glanced at the images of her friend as the video played.

"My hope for the future is that one day there will be a cure for childhood cancer," Farrah told the students when the short video ended. "Until then, I plan to do my best to raise money for research and create awareness ... in memory of Ali."

As part of a school project, Farrah and classmates also arranged to have this week declared "Smile Wide Week" at the school. It was Ali's final wish that people "smile wide every day." They're selling smiley-face pins and helping to collect gifts for children in treatment for cancer.

"We're collecting coloring books, art supplies, card games -- anything fun," said Karen Borgen, Ali's mother. "And we're collecting socks -- Ali called them funky socks -- that kids will get when they check in, to replace those boring hospital socks."

The items collected in Petersburg and elsewhere throughout the region will go to the Ronald McDonald House and St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minn., where Ali received much of her treatment.

Karen Borgen said her daughter considered Farrah "a true friend" and would have loved the video.

"I thought it was beautiful," she said. "I'm sure it was very hard for her to put together."

Sarah Kopp Heitkamp said her daughter and Ali met through a mutual friend after Ali's cancer was diagnosed. "The girls just hit it off," she said. "They both were so silly and light-hearted, and they really enjoyed spending time together.

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"I think making the video has given her an opportunity to remember Ali and do something for her. She's such a good kid, and she really loved Ali.

"We have a lot of cancer in our own family, and I think that's one of the reasons she connected so well. When Ali was going through her treatments, my mom also was going through treatments. I don't want to say it was normal for Farrah. But Ali having cancer wasn't an issue."

She said she watched as her daughter put the video together, planning to offer suggestions as it took shape.

"But mostly I just cried," she said.

A tough subject

It was difficult for some people at Dakota Prairie, too.

"It's pretty sad," sophomore Robert Dunbar said after watching the video. "I kind of wanted to get out of here. I didn't want anybody to see me cry.

"My mom had breast cancer. She survived, but it's still hard."

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Cancer "is a tough subject that hits close to home here," said Jennifer Barney, a teacher at the school. Several students have parents who are fighting the disease, as are a few members of the school staff.

Barney advises Farrah and about 25 other students who participate in Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. Another group project has students making blankets for "bags of hope," which will be given to abused children placed in foster homes.

Principal Jared Schlenker watched all three of Farrah's video presentations.

"She is a very shy girl," he said, "but she's done a great thing here."

To accompany her narration in the video, Farrah chose the popular song "Smile" by Uncle Cracker, and she tells how Ali -- despite spinal breaks and strokes, despite four years of intense chemotherapy and radiation treatments -- kept smiling and urging those around her to smile.

She told how they raised money together for research on childhood cancer and money to help children whose families need help paying for treatment and care.

"And we found lots of time for giggling and goofing around," she says in the video.

"It was one of those friendships where, as soon as they met, they clicked," Karen Borgen said earlier this week. "Farrah never treated Ali like a kid with cancer. They were simply friends."

She said that she and her husband, Rich, and son, Dylan, were "all doing as well as can be expected" as the anniversary of Ali's passing approached.

"It's not that it's getting any easier," she said. "But we're learning how to live with the pain."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: HEALTH
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