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Willmar girl meets country star

The Chan family of Willmar meet with singer Carrie Underwood after her concert at the Minnesota State Fair. The meeting was arranged after a letter-writing campaign by Willmar Middle School staff and students on behalf of Mackanzie Chan, who has cancer. From left, Amanda, 15, Daniel, 15, Mackanzie, 14, Underwood, mother Anna Chan, Matthew, 6, and father Doug Chan. (Submitted)2 / 3
Mackanzie Chan, 14-year-old eighth-grader, has been diagnosed with a cancer but is attending classes half-days at Willmar Middle School to be around friends. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)3 / 3

Someone at Sony Music opened more than 150 letters from Willmar last spring. Each one, written by a seventh-grader or staff member at Willmar Middle School, said the same thing — Mackanzie Chan needs to meet Carrie Underwood. Make it happen. In a show of what a community can do when it focuses on a goal, Mackanzie and her family met Underwood backstage after her Minnesota State Fair concert. The story leading up to the family photo with the famous singer begins in 2014, when sixth-grader Mackanzie fell, twice, for no apparent reason. Her back hurt, too. The initial thought was that it was a pulled muscle, but an X-ray revealed a mass in her back pressing on her spine and lung. After the large tumor was removed, a scan revealed cancerous tumors elsewhere, including in her lymph nodes. Treatment started, and, for a time, the chemotherapy worked. The first efforts at chemotherapy stopped working, but her doctors are trying newer medications in an effort to slow the growth of her tumors. When one pain medication stopped working, they found one that did. When one of her doctors told her she should consider using the school district’s homebound school program this fall, Mackanzie rebelled. If you don’t go to school, there’s no back-to-school shopping, she reasoned. Now starting eighth grade, Mackanzie continues to attend school part time. She comes in every day that she’s able for math, social studies and communications classes. “And to see my friends.” Social studies is her favorite subject — “I just like the history,” she said Wednesday morning. For now, Mackanzie said, “I feel OK,” but she sometimes has pain, and she gets tired and has headaches. Her faith helps her keep going, too, she said. She wore a new silver cross she received Sept. 10 from her parents on her 14th birthday. The Carrie Underwood project started with counselor Jeff Winter finding out that she loved Underwood. When he learned that Underwood would be at 2015 State Fair, he was on a mission. Winter speaks regularly with Mackanzie’s caregivers and helps share information with the schools that her siblings attend. “We’ve got a big loop going here, so Jeff and the school understand,” Doug Chan said. Winter started out by writing to Underwood’s record label, telling Mackanzie’s story. “Nothing,” he said. Teachers and other staff members wrote letters. Then communications teacher Chelsea Brown suggested her classmates be given the option of writing to Underwood as part of a class writing project. Other teachers took up the cause, and 150 kids wrote letters. When the teachers were getting ready to package the letters, Winter suggested sending each one individually. It would teach the kids how to address an envelope, and it might make a bigger impact when the letters arrived, he said with a smile. “I thought, this has got to have some effect,” he said. “Nothing.” He made one last try, writing a long letter to another email address he’d found. When he still heard nothing, he had to let the idea go, he said. Then two days before the sold out concert, late in the evening, he received an email from a Sony official. We got 150 letters from your school, it said, tell us about this girl. He wrote back right away, providing more details about Mackanzie and her condition. “Within minutes, he emailed back and said, ‘We’re going to make this happen for her.’ ” The logistics were handled quickly through repeated emails and phone calls over the next two days. At one point, a person from the tour said they had four tickets available and asked how the family would feel if two of them couldn’t go. “How would your family feel if two people couldn’t go,” Winter responded. Two more tickets were found. Winter said he believes they came from musicians’ family members. Sony provided money for gas, and an employee met them at the State Fair gate to pay their admission. The Underwood tour accommodated the family’s needs, as Doug Chan has limited mobility due to his muscular dystrophy. After the show, they spent a half hour with Underwood. The evening felt like a dream, they said, and they couldn’t remember that much about their conversation. “We talked about stuff normal people talk about,” Doug Chan said. “She was so down to earth.” They talked about going to fairs. Underwood had hugs for Mackanzie and talked about all the letters she’d received. She admired Mackanzie’s ball cap covered in bling. Mackenzie’s mother, Anna Chan, said her favorite song was, “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Underwood said it was her favorite, too. Meeting Underwood is a cherished memory, but the reality of having a daughter with a deadly illness is a constant companion for Mackanzie’s family. She has three siblings, twins Amanda and Daniel, 15, and Matthew, 6. “We keep plugging on,” Doug Chan said. “We’re trying to make her as comfortable as possible” and let her be a “normal kid.” The family is trying to spend more time just hanging out than they may have before Mackanzie’s illness, he said, and extended family is around more often, too. Their Assembly of God church and the Middle School have done many things for the family, Doug Chan said. They are grateful for all the help they’ve received, he added. Chan said the family has always been honest with Mackenzie and the older children about her condition and how serious it is. Mackenzie said she has always wanted it that way and prefers to have information. The school has told her classmates as much as Mackenzie is comfortable sharing, too, Winter said. Her brave example is teaching her classmates about life, he added.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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