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Falls Elementary School was full of princes, princesses, unicorns and other fairy-tale characters Tuesday to celebrate a kindergarten student battling terminal cancer.
Alice Staples was the guest of honor at “Alice’s Magical Day,” an event organized by elementary staff to celebrate the 6-year-old and surround her with love.
“Alice is a remarkable young lady who we have been very blessed to have been part of her life and have her in our school community,” said Falls Elementary Principal Melissa Tate. “(She) loves princesses and unicorns. She loves Lucky Charms marshmallows for snack. She loves to see her friends at school and also loves her family and cousin so much.”
At age 2, Alice was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid/rhaboid tumor, an aggressive brain tumor seen in infants and young children. The tumor is rare, accounting for 1 to 2 percent of pediatric brain tumors. Medical websites describe the prognosis as exceedingly dismal compared with other malignant brain tumors, which is unfortunately the case for Alice.
Last month, the child’s family and school officials were delivered the heartbreaking news that medical intervention is no longer available for Alice, and she has entered the hospice stage of her battle.
“It’s devastating,” Tate said. “We’re a family here at school... we love these kids like our own.”
The principal immediately sprang into action by rounding up elementary staff to brainstorm ways to celebrate Alice and offer support to the family.
“We wanted to have a party for her, but we weren’t sure what that would look like with almost 500 kids,” Tate said.
Complete with a carriage made by preschool teacher Missy Walls, Tuesday’s party was referred to as truly magical by many in attendance. The event generated plenty of tears, but also brought celebration.
Nearly every student and staff member dressed up to support Alice, who wore a blue dress trimmed with lace and a flowered crown on her nearly-bare head. Displaying her best princess-like wave, Alice entered the gym in the carriage where she was greeted by Van Pavleck dressed up as Santa Claus, Krista Wagner as “Queen Elsa,” and a miniature pony dressed as a unicorn.
“This is incredible,” said longtime teacher Gail Rasmussen, who was dressed as “The Cat in the Hat” for the event. “This is a perfect party for such a special little girl.”
“I think everything turned out wonderful,” she said. “The kids really responded well to the situation... This is going to be hard on them, too.”
The showering of gifts and attention Tuesday could have been overwhelming, but a smile rarely left Alice’s face.
“She’s used to this,” said her aunt, Scotta Turner. “She loves being the center of attention.”
The Falls Elementary event isn’t the first time Alice has experienced an out-pour of local love. In August of 2018, she was crowned as the first ever “Princess for a Day,” during a community celebration in Smokey Bear Park. A proclamation was made by the late International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson, who was also in attendance.
“She really is a special girl,” Turner continued, as she scooped up her niece. “We love her so much.”
Many adults at the party made comments about feeling the true meaning of Christmas as they watched students surround their classmate with unconditional love. As Pavleck read Alice a book and unloaded a bag of presents, silence fell across the crowd.
“They understood the day was about Alice,” Tate said. “This affects everybody... We are here to assist Alice’s family and (other) children and families through this difficult journey in any way we can.”
Alice will also be recognized Dec. 20 at Relay Recess. The event, which raises money for the American Cancer Society, begins at 9 a.m. at Falls Elementary School.
Paul Nevanen can still recall his feelings the first night he moved back to International Falls 27 years ago.
“It just felt so wonderful,” he said. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.”
The emotional attachment to the area for the director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority was strong, and he is hopeful it will be for others, too.
KEDA and Big Fish Works this week launched an effort to recruit Koochiching County’s own back to the area. Your Ticket Home is the starting point for individuals and businesses interested in moving to or returning to the county.
“The effort is a recruitment strategy for families, potential business owners and workforce,” Nevanen said. “We’ve been working on this for quite some time.”
As an agency looking to boost economic development, Nevanen said most of KEDA’s marketing and recruitment efforts have been trying to bring something new into the county.
“We’ve had very limited success with that,” he said. “We need to develop what we have within.”
Your Ticket Home targets people within the ages of 25 and mid-40s who have a connection to the county in some way. Whatever it is that previously brought people to Koochiching County hopefully built an emotional connection that would encourage a permanent return, is the idea behind the campaign.
“We think if folks were given the right opportunities, they would come back to the area,” Nevanen said, referring back to his own personal experience. “People know what makes this place special.”
The idea for the project isn’t unique to Koochiching County, and was already attempted once before.
In 2006, KEDA introduced the local initiative, however, the lack of social media nearly 14 years ago didn’t give the effort the momentum it needed.
“It was a great idea and had great response, but at that time, social media was not as sophisticated as it is now,” Nevanen said. “We didn’t have the ability to respond really quickly.”
Now, with the ability to reach a wider range of people through social media, Nevanen and others are hopeful to see more success with Your Ticket Home.
“This is going to be a long-term project that we intend to track,” he said. “We’ve got good ideas and the right people behind this.”
To help boost interest in the effort, a contest to win a $500 plane voucher is also in the mix.
Nevanen said people who do not currently live in Koochiching County are eligible to win the SkyWest Delta voucher by filling out the brief questionnaire at www.yourtickethome.org.
“The questionnaire helps us better align what a person or couple needs in terms of employment,” Nevanen said. “The person who wins the voucher will be randomly selected later this month.”
The KEDA director knows there are challenges associated with coming back to the rural northern Minnesota county, especially when it involves finding jobs for two adults in a family.
“That’s been the challenge and remains the challenge,” Nevanen said. “But, given the right opportunities, we believe we can get people back here... Moving back here is a big decision, but it’s an easy one... As people go through milestones in their life, I believe the most important one is when you feel like you’re home.”
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