The birthday tree—a Valentine with a cause

Young cancer survivor is working hard to help others make it through the disease

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Jacobs Adley and Ava Brae make a Night Light version of the Birthday Tree.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Jacobs
Adley and Ava Brae make a Night Light version of the Birthday Tree.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

Never in my lifetime have I received a handwritten birthday card from someone that I have never met—until I opened one from a 9-year-old young girl named Ava Jacobs. With the card was a birthday gift that I’ll cherish daily forever.

There was a connection, though. I had worked with her grandfather on community development projects out of Bismarck, N.D., beginning in 1995, and we’ve been friends since.

Therefore, I knew the story of Ava and her ordeal with pediatric cancer at 13 months of age. Today, she plays volleyball, is a leader on the cheer/drill team, plays piano and guitar, sings in the school choir, performs lead roles in her local youth theater, and is cancer-free.

Dear Mr. Wanberg,

I heard that you had cancer.


In the summer too, right?

All this treatment this. All this treatment that.

But, our job is to work together, to help other people out!

So, let’s be strong together.

I heard you worked for BraveHearts. My Grandpa started it!

Maybe we could both be BraveHearts!

Now, let me tell you about this special tree.

It’s called a Birthday Tree.

It’s not just for birthdays, it’s also for making people happy!

I have one, and now I’m giving it to you!

I hope you get better with this yucky, blucky cancer, and together we can help people all over the world.

Are you with me?

Can’t wait to meet you!

Ava Jacobs

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Jacobs Ava poses with the finished product. BraveHearts4Kids sells these to finance operations so that all donated money can go to help families of children with cancer.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Jacobs
Ava poses with the finished product. BraveHearts4Kids sells these to finance operations so that all donated money can go to help families of children with cancer.

I responded with the following letter, which was not as concise as Ava’s but detailed the history and the promise of the future in the language of a career educator.

Dear Ava,

Thank you for your heartwarming letter and sharing your Birthday Tree with me, which now lights my desk.

Your parents told me that you wrote the letter entirely on your own, showed it to them, and asked for help in packing your B-Tree for shipment.

Yes, I’m with you, proudly.

We are both cancer survivors.

We need to work together across generations, as I’ll be 86 years old on my birthday on the 28th of February. I know that you’ll be 10 years old on February 14th—Happy Valentine’s Day. I think you were born to bring happiness to people, as well as hope to those who experience pediatric cancer, like yourself as a survivor.

I’ve followed your dad Jeremy’s career over the years and know of his important position on NASA’s team for the upcoming Orion spacecraft to outer space and how his studies helped in your recovery. I’ve known your creative grandfather Adrian for years and we’ve worked together on projects. Even knew your great grandfather Walter, who in retirement was a journalist, columnist, and media-man like me.

What we could do together is tell your story to a wide audience. VP Biden recently organized a White House proposal on a “Moonshot” initiative to research and eventually eradicate cancer—the “C” word that up to 35% to 50% of the population will hear as a diagnosis in their lifetime.

But you are suggesting, as I hear your message, that the “C” word means other things—Caring about others, developing a Community of success stories, participating in a grass-root Citizen initiative with the voices of survivors, and recognizing how the generational Culture of our forefathers in North Dakota link us together.

I’d be happy to work with you in carrying your inspiring message of empathy and understanding to others.

In its intent, the B-Tree should replace New Year’s Eve resolutions to commit annually during one’s birthday how one wants to grow and develop each year. I’m adding my resolutions on a square piece of paper and folding my written commitment into an origami whooping crane to hang from the B-Tree as both an ornament and a reminder of my civic resolutions until my next birthday.

These majestic cranes that once nearly died out migrate from the Gulf to N.D. every spring to nest, raise their young, and lead them back intuitively before winter to teach the young how to navigate the way. Your family does this too for reunions, vacation fun, and festivities over generations.

I am happy to share some of what I’ve learned over the years in teaching and practice, especially from my 27 years in military service, when I worked with families of POWs, Wounded Warriors, and some years on oncology wards in military hospitals in my career role as a child and family therapist.

The next day after my birthday is the 29th—a good time to leap forward and launch your message of BraveHearts4Kids to a world of others from voices of survivors.

In today’s world of postal mailings for non-profit appeals and TV ads asking for donations, Ava’s genuine outreach for a cause, which shares her story of BraveHearts4Kids, has a unique, compelling way of a family giving back with gratitude for her recovery.

A core idea of BH4Kids is that the organization self-generates its revenues through balancing traditional fundraising with a business model, such as creating and selling Birthday Trees and producing healthy food products, such as the inherent value of wild natural berries found on the prairies with healing benefits from antitoxins.

The intent is that no charity money is used for overhead—100% goes to families being supported by BH4Kids. Both traditional fund-raising through sponsored events and interactive social media outreaches through web-based platforms are being used.

A blog is being planned where Ava’s message reaches out to a wide audience of followers and supporters for comment or sharing information.

I should acknowledge that Ava’s mother Amy plays a huge role in her daughter’s wellbeing and healing, only that I don’t have the generational connection with her side of the family. However, I do know that her closest family circle includes a number of professionals in the field of health, healing and holistic medicine.

If the “Moonshot” proposal from a government launchpad can be successful, a number of collaborative auxiliary innovations or contingency crews need to be planned and in place for its overall success. A grass-root family-based approach like BH4Kids could work alongside of national organizations that are lead by experts in the field in a long-term goal to reduce or prevent cancer.

I believe that Ava and others like her will lead us along a path to progressively give hope to children and families with the diagnosis of cancer by sharing their firsthand experiences and personal outcomes of becoming cancer-free.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 19, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.