Lemonade Day Gives 9-Year-Old Leukemia Survivor Chance to Give Back to Casper Community
It's been a good distraction.
Casper's Lemonade Day, sponsored by Hilltop National Bank, was created for a variety of reasons: to teach kids entrepreneurship, construction skills, budgeting, saving, customer service, and so much more. But for one Casper family, Lemonade Day gave them a chance to think about something other than the worst thing that's ever happened to them.
It started last October. When 9-year-old Ashlinn Swanson got sick, and wasn't getting better, her parents took her to the doctor.
"Her white blood cells were really low," Ashlinn's mom Nichole told K2 Radio News. "Come to find out, we went to the Wyoming Medical Center and they tested her cells, and told us that they were dangerously low. She was actually airlifted to the Denver Children's Hospital."
At first, doctors couldn't figure out what the problem was. Nobody knew why her white blood cells were so low. Nichole and her husband Aadam weren't convinced of what doctors were telling them. Parents just know. So they got a second opinion.
In March of 2022, Nichole and Aadam took Ashlinn to see an oncologist and it was at that moment their worst fears were confirmed.
Ashlinn was diagnosed with leukemia.
"We caught it early," Nichole said. "They say that once it's in your body, it can take up to four to six months for it to actually show up in a blood test. And that was about the timeframe we were at, from her being sick in October and then being diagnosed in March."
It was the worst news a parent could have possibly been given. But the Swanson family didn't wallow. Ashlinn didn't waiver. They caught the cancer quick enough to begin treatment immediately.
"They got her into chemotherapy very quickly," Nichole said.
But Aadam added that it wasn't just chemo that Ashlinn had to undergo.
"She started really going through her procedures pretty consistently," he said. "You know, spinal taps and spending a lot of time in and out of hospitals, and constant doctor visits, getting poked and prodded."
It was a whirlwind for the entire family, but especially for Ashlinn.
"It was crazy," she said. "One day I was a normal kid and the next I had cancer."
That would be a lot to take in at any age, let alone as a 9-year-old. But Ashlinn has done everything her parents and her doctors have asked her to do.
"The chemo makes me feel sick sometimes," Ashlinn said. "And sleepy."
Nichole added that Ashlinn suffers from headaches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and, yes, hair loss.
But if you didn't know her, you'd swear that Ashlinn chose her haircut herself. That's how beautiful she looks with short hair. Her smiling, glowing face is only emphasized by her shorter hair.
"It's crazy, the amount of pressure and stuff she's under," Nichole said. "I don't even know if she understands all of it. We just tell her, like, 'You're sick. This is what you have to do to get better.' And thank God kids are resilient because she's taken it on like a champ."
And the family hasn't done it by themselves. Like many Casper families dealing with pediatric cancer, the Swanson family has been helped enormously by the Jason's Friends Foundation.
"Jason's Friends has been life-altering," Nichole said. "The diagnosis is life-altering too, but their kind of help has also been a huge blessing for us. They've helped us with travel expenses, and meals while we're in Denver. They're the ones who connected us with Brent's Place, which is the apartment that we live in, in Denver."
Aadam agreed, saying that Jason's Friends have alleviated much of the stress that occurs alongside the stress of the diagnosis itself.
"With Nichole not being able to work as much because she's taking care of Ashlinn, what they've done is huge," Aadam said. "It takes a big weight off our shoulders. We don't have to stress as much about bills."
Nichole nodded, saying that they were "able to focus on her and the medicine and the treatments and getting better; not having to focus on the mortgage and the bills and gas and food. It just takes a big financial burden off of us."
And that's why, when the family decided to make a stand for Casper's Lemonade Day, Ashlinn said she wanted to donate fifty percent of their earnings back to the Jason's Friends Foundation.
"It's so much fun," Nichole said. "We had so much fun doing it last year and it's just a good time. Casper's sense of community has always been great, and it's always fun just to see all the other lemonade day stands, and teaching kids how to earn money and do all of that is great. So I think we always had the plan and the idea that we wanted to continue to do it every summer that we can. And Ashlinn loves it. She has a great time out here, and if we can throw in a little bit of extra money to donate, that's great too."
This year, especially, making a stand for Lemonade Day was important to the Swanson family.
"Any normalcy for Ashlinn, any glimpse of what she was doing before she was diagnosed, that's good too," Aadam stated. "She's all about it. When we told her about Lemonade Day this year, she just lit up because she remembers how much fun she had last year."
And fun, lately, has been hard to come by.
"It's heartbreaking, you know?" Nichole asked. "She hasn't been to school since March. She didn't get to participate in all that fun stuff at the end of the year..."
"Track Day," Ashlinn added.
"And Last Blast and yearbook signings and all of that stuff that kids look forward to - she didn't get to go to," Nichole said. "We didn't get to do summer camp this year at the Rec Center. Or her dance activities. She's in Hip Hop and Jazz dance classes, and we had to take her out of those. She didn't get to do her dance recital or sports at the Boys & Girls Club. We had to take her out of soccer, basketball, and volleyball. So it just really sucks."
Ashlinn said the worst part about everything was being away from her friends.
"I miss going to school," she said.
Which is why something like Lemonade Day is so important to Ashlinn and her family.
While there are a variety of reasons why Lemonade Day is such a great idea - the things it teaches, the money it raises, etc. - more than anything, it's a chance for kids to get creative and to bond with their family and friends.
Ashlinn said that her favorite part of Lemonade Day wasn't the money. It wasn't the decorating, or the marketing, or any other thing that one might think of.
"I like pouring people lemonade," she said. "I like making people smile when I pour it."
And Ashlinn returns the favor in kind, offering what might just be the biggest smile you'd ever see. Even after everything she's gone through, everything she still has to go through, her smile has only gotten bigger. It's only gotten brighter.
Nichole said that they had already raised more than $500, and that number will surely only grow by the end of their day. $500 would be a lot for a little girl. Think of how many dolls, or action figures, or clothes that amount of money could buy. But Ashlinn didn't want to keep it all for herself. It was her idea to donate half of it to Jason's Friends, and she had a very simply reason for doing so.
"I want to help other kids beat cancer, because that's what I did," she said.
It's true. Aadam and Nichole said that Ashlinn is in remission. And though she's still in a two-year treatment program, as of right now, she's cancer-free.
That's another reason why the family wanted to donate back to Jason's Friends. They were lucky enough to be able to catch Ashlinn's cancer relatively quickly. A lot of families don't. And that's why spreading awareness is so important.
"Spreading awareness is great," Nichole said. "They don't know what causes leukemia. They don't know how it starts, or where it starts, or why it starts. Thankfully, treatments are amazing these days and there are trials and we know what works and they're able to get kids in remission and save them. But, they don't know how it starts. So any awareness that we can spread for that to maybe figure out where it's coming from or how it starts - that's great too."
And that is another thing that the Jason's Friends Foundation does. In addition to helping families out financially, they also work to spread awareness about all forms of pediatric cancer. And Nichole said that, without Jason's Friends, she didn't know where or how her family would be. But it's not just Jason's Friends that have offered support to the Swanson family; it's the entire Casper community.
"Casper's just home, ya know?" Nichole stated. "Especially when we're in Colorado for so long. So often it feels like you just never know what you have until it's gone. Denver is crazy. There's so many people and it's just not home, you know? And the community here is just awesome. They always band together with stuff going on."
That's what Casper continues to do, time after time. Proof of this lies no further than in the GoFundMe that was created for Ashlinn. Since March, more than $7500 has been raised for Ashlinn and all of the expenses that come with her diagnosis. It's proof, once again, that Casper takes care of its own.
And that's why, even if it's only a little bit, Ashlinn wants to give back. And Lemonade Day gave her the perfect opportunity to do so.
"It's a great distraction for the day and leading up to it," Nichole said. "It's nice to have close friends around and come by to see her and help with donations. Casper is just a great community."
Though Ashlinn is in remission, her battle with Leukemia is not over. Not yet. But she intends to keep fighting and, as her shirt from the day proclaimed, she's not going down without a fight. So if she could give any advice to other kids who may be suffering from a similar illness, what would her advice be?
"Stay strong, you'll get better soon."
Photos from Ashlinn's stand, as well as other stands from Casper's Lemonade Day 2022 can be seen below: