Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



14-year-old Minnesota girl allowed to graduate before dying of cancer

WILLMAR -- A few weeks before she died, 14-year-old Mackanzie Chan told a hospice counselor that she had two major regrets, that she would not get to graduate from high school and would not go to prom.

Mackanzie Chan, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, was diagnosed with cancer but had attended classes half-days at Willmar Middle School to be around friends. (FILE | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - A few weeks before she died, 14-year-old Mackanzie Chan told a hospice counselor that she had two major regrets, that she would not get to graduate from high school and would not go to prom.

Mackanzie, an eighth-grader at Willmar Middle School, died Feb. 14, roughly two years after she was first diagnosed with cancer.

The week before Mackanzie died, school officials presented her with a Willmar Senior High School diploma in a small graduation ceremony at her bedside and certified that she had completed the requirements of eighth grade.

She was too weak to try them on, but someone rounded up some prom dresses and brought them to her house, said Jeff Winter, a counselor at Willmar Middle School who had been the liaison between Mackanzie’s family and the school.

Mackanzie had been diagnosed with cancer when she was in sixth grade. Surgery and treatments worked for a time, and then they didn’t.


After she learned last fall that she wouldn’t have much longer to live, she kept that news mostly to herself and continued living her life.

She went to school partial days when she could, because she wanted to see her friends.

Winter gave students regular updates on her condition. “For quite a while, she absolutely did not want students here to know how bad things were,” he said. But in recent weeks she gave permission to tell her schoolmates the whole story, so “they knew it was close.”

The school had teachers deliver the news to students when they returned to school that following Tuesday, since they’d had Monday off.

“It’s best to tell the kids in a smaller environment,” Winter said. “I wrote a statement about her passing and we had a staff meeting before school.” Teachers read the statement in first hour classes and told students counselors and the school social worker were available as needed.

Winter, counselor Alison Scheffler and social worker Annette Tiffany spoke with a number of kids. The kids talked about the things they liked about Mackanzie, like her being funny at lunch.

“She was definitely spunky,” he said. “She was someone who would tell you like it was, and she wasn’t bashful.”

She was selfless, too, he added, “always putting others first.” She worried more about her parents and her three siblings than she did about herself.


The Chan family planned Mackanzie’s visitation and funeral to allow people from school to attend. Visitation was from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday with the funeral at 7 p.m. She was buried Saturday morning in Renville, near family. Students and staff members helped fill the main level of the Assembly of God Church in Willmar was full.

“With something like this, you realize how far-reaching one person can be in the community,” Winter said.

The Middle School students, faculty and staff offered support for Mackanzie and her family throughout her illness.

The school held several fundraisers for the family and is in the middle of another that ends this weekend.

Last year, her classmates had helped her check off another wish - Mackanzie and her family met Carrie Underwood at the star’s State Fair concert. At least 150 students and staff members sent individual letters to Sony Music pleading to let Underwood meet Mackanzie.

The campaign was noticed, and the family attended Underwood’s concert and spent a half hour with her after the show.

The school has held several fundraisers to help the family with expenses. The most recent started before she died and will wrap up this week. Winter was one of 10 volunteers at his church given $100 and told to “make it grow.”

He challenged his church and the kids at school to make it grow tenfold, he said. He doesn’t have a final figure yet but already knows the original goal has been exceeded.


The students have been involved in a memorial effort, too. They are writing characteristics of Mackanzie on one side and their names on the other.

The kids have filled three vases with rocks so far, and it will continue through the end of the week. “I think we’ve helped the kids get through it,” Winter said.


Obituary of Mackanzie E. Chan

Willmar girl meets country star

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
What To Read Next
Get Local