Local man stricken with cancer finds great comfort in helping sick children

It must be frightening to be 24 years old and facing death. Will Vossen is not afraid. Or, if he is, he keeps it to himself. "He doesn't complain or ask 'Why me?'" said his father, Paul, of Spicer. Will was diagnosed with brain and spinal cancer ...

It must be frightening to be 24 years old and facing death.

Will Vossen is not afraid. Or, if he is, he keeps it to himself.

"He doesn't complain or ask 'Why me?'" said his father, Paul, of Spicer.

Will was diagnosed with brain and spinal cancer when he was 17. Treatment beat the cancer into submission for five years. Then it came back, and in early 2005 he was given five months to live. He beat those odds, but daily he is growing weaker. He no longer has the use of his legs and sitting makes him dizzy, nauseous.

But Will's way is to turn his situation into good. His mission is to help children facing the affliction he knows well.


Will has done several important things to ease the way for children with cancer.

He is an artist by nature and has a degree in graphic design and animation. He designed the Stingrays' swimming club logo for the banner that hangs at the Willmar Senior High School pool.

For the past year the family has sold T-shirts and caps, with profits dedicated to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

More than 600 shirts and caps selling for $15 to $20 have traveled worldwide. Each has a caricature of Will with the adage on the back: "Where there's a Will, there's a Way," and simply: "Will Power," on the front.

T-Shirts travel the world

The Vossens have received more than 150 photos of people wearing Will's shirt. The photos were taken in China, Mexico, France, Iraq, Brazil and all around the United States.

The photos are a solace for the family. When Will feels up to it, he is helped to a desk beside his bed. There on the computer he has assembled a mosaic of the photos set to music. The photos capture people against backdrops of mountains, beaches and big cities.

"Our big worry when we ordered all these shirts was that we wouldn't be able to get rid of them," said Will's mother, Deb. "To our surprise, it's been a big success."


Interjects Will from his bed: "It's feels wonderful. People see the design and they like it," said Will.

Will traces the origin of the line drawing to doodling he did as a 16-year-old at Hopkins High School.

"It started as just a V, and then I added a couple of eyes and a mouth," said Will. It became his whimsical signature for friends. There's a coil of hair on the forehead, bushy eyebrows and a goatee. The eyebrow above the right eye, Will points out, is his cryptic signature, "me."

In high school he loaded up on art classes. He wanted to achieve a professional level quickly. The cancer took a toll. He home-schooled his senior year but took part in the Hopkins graduation ceremonies and attended prom with one of his nurses from Children's Hospital where he was being treated.

After 20 years in the Twin Cities, the Vossens moved back to their home area to be close to family. Paul and Deb were high school sweethearts and graduated in the Willmar Class of 1972. They especially wanted to be near their folks and Will's grandparents, George and Del Voorhees of Spicer and Arnie Vossen and Jarres Vossen, both of Willmar. Will has a married sister, Valerie Jeffrey, who lives in Annandale.

Helped hospital design

Will maintained his close ties to Children's Hospital of Minneapolis and the Ride For Kids. Last summer the motorcycle cruise out of White Bear Lake drew 450 riders and raised $81,746 for the foundation.

On a recent Saturday, family gathered at the Vossen rambler -- a house they bought and moved from the nearby state Highway 23 construction -- which is on a hill that offers a panoramic view of the east bay of Nest Lake. Will often sleeps until 3 p.m., but he woke up around noon this day to accommodate the Tribune. He makes lighthearted conversation, though he is now hard of hearing. It is too much to sit up and model one of his T-shirts, so the photo is taken with him lying down. He smiles for the camera.


Will had attended the Ride for Kids for seven years and plans to again this summer. He speaks at the rally.

"He is never at a loss for words," says Deb.

In 2004 Will was a volunteer design adviser for the four-story Tower addition at Children's Hospital Minneapolis. Will's had a long relationship with the hospital. He's had surgery there, chemotherapy and radiology. He knew the eighth-floor hematology/oncology unit well, according to an article in the October 2004 issue of Children's Magazine published quarterly.

In a self-authored sidebar to the article, Will displays a sensitivity borne of experience to kids and family facing hospitalization: "I want the feel of Children's environment to keep the kids happy, the parents calm, and the staff willing and focused. When kids can enjoy their environment, it's a distraction for them and they think, 'Gee, this is fun. This place is for me.' Those positive feelings will rub off on parents, sisters and brothers, who also may feel apprehensive about being at the hospital."

Meeting with architects and staff, Will offered sketches and color schemes for the hallways that he felt would appeal to children.

The T-shirt sales and photo returns are a ray of sunshine each day for Will and his family.

"Will never had a chance for a career, to have a wife or a family," said Deb. "He's struggled. But this is his way to leave a mark. It's sort of Will's legacy."

The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation Web site states that cancer is the No. 1 killer of children age 1 through 14, and brain cancer is the most lethal form. The foundation supports the search for a cause and cure of childhood brain tumors. The Ride For Kids, started in Atlanta in 1984, now is held in 36 states. Last year's Ride For Kids, which also funds educational and patient support programs, raised $4.1 million for the foundation. This year's Minnesota Ride For Kids starts at East Century College in White Bear Lake (8:30 to 10:30 a.m. registration) on July 23.


"Will Power" shirts and caps are available by calling (320) 796-6465 after 6 p.m. or e-mail .

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