Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How you can help a Faribault family dealing with loss & cancer December 18, 2018

Nate and Jackie Howells and family of Faribault.


IT’S BAD ENOUGH when parents lose a young child. But to endure such a tragedy shortly before Christmas deepens the pain.

This is the reality for a Faribault couple whose almost 4-year-old son, Casimir, died on December 13. On his first birthday on December 27, 2015, Casi aspirated a small object and stopped breathing. According to a Facebook page entry, he lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest. The object was removed surgically. He then suffered seizure-like convulsions and was placed on life support. About two months later, Casi left the hospital and has since needed 24/7 health care. Now he’s gone.



But there’s more. Nate and Jackie Howells’ 10-year-old son, Xavier (known as Iggy), is battling metastasized cancer (rhabdomyosarcoma) diagnosed a year ago. He’s undergone surgery and continues with chemo. He’ll likely need another eight months of treatment.

Nate quit his job teaching children with autism at Jefferson Elementary School in Faribault to better care for Iggy. The Howells have four other children.

As I consider all of that, I am overwhelmed by the immensity of the situation. How can one family possibly endure so much? Loss. Grief. Pain. Uncertainty. Worry. It’s a lot to handle.


Iggy’s soccer team wore these shirts honoring their goalie.


While none of us can remove the emotional pain the Howells feel, we can pray for, support, encourage, uplift, help and care for them. Nate’s friend and former co-worker Lisa (also my friend) has established a gofundme page, Iggy Strong. She’s set a $43,000 goal, meant to replace Nate’s lost paycheck and cover daily living (think gas, groceries, etc.) and other expenses. Thus far donors have contributed nearly $8,500.

The $43K is a lot of money to raise. But I know people, when they see a need, rise to meet it. I am grateful to Lisa for initiating this effort, for reaching out to others (including me) who in turn can share this need. If you can give, please do so by clicking here. You’ll also find more details on Iggy’s battle with cancer.




There’s such sweetness in that freckled face. Such a signature boyish look that just makes me, as a mom, want to wrap my arms around Iggy. And his family.


Photos are courtesy of Lisa M. Bolt Simons, via the Howells family
© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


One mother’s remarkable love December 3, 2018

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2017.


HER WORDS LEFT ME near tears. They are words of a mother who loves her 22-year-old daughter beyond measure.

She wishes, she told me, that she could trade places with Brittany*, that she would be the one battling ovarian cancer. Not her girl.

I saw the pain in Ellen’s* eyes, heard it during our brief exchange outside Walmart as I rang bells for the Salvation Army on Saturday morning. Ellen and I are acquaintances, two of our children once classmates. I haven’t seen her in years, thus greeted her with “How are you?”

When Ellen looked away and responded with a subdued OK, I picked up immediately that she was not alright. So I asked. And then she told me about the discovery of a large tumor on one of Brittany’s ovaries, the eight months getting care at a metro hospital, the seemingly successful treatment…until abnormal blood work results last week.

I reached out and hugged her.

We didn’t talk stages or treatment or about other medical details. I focused instead on how Ellen was coping, knowing how difficult this must be for her. How it would be for any mother. As moms we want to make everything better for our children, no matter their ages. Ellen didn’t disagree. But her response went beyond that. “I wish I was the one with cancer,” she said.

For the second time, I instinctively wrapped her in a hug.

Ellen spoke with the authenticity of a mother who’d thought often about her desire to trade places, to be the one fighting cancer. I admire the strength of her love for Brittany.

During the two hours I greeted folks while ringing bells, my time with Ellen proved an emotionally pivotal moment. I’d seen so much of humanity. Smiling faces. Scowling faces. Faces that exuded joy. Faces that showed nothing but despair. Mouths that spoke gratitude. Mouths that complained (about the winter storm—”It’s too early for this s**t”). I thought I’d heard it all. But I hadn’t until I heard the profound words of love from an incredible mother—”I wish I was the one with cancer.”

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

*Not their real names.


From the strange, but true: Coyotes for a cause January 26, 2018

Thousands gather each summer in Faribault for the Straight River Stroll to raise funds for cancer research and to remember, celebrate and pray for those touched by cancer. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.


WHEN IT COMES TO RAISING money for cancer research and cancer support groups, I typically think of a cancer walk, silent auction or such. Not a hunt.


A hunter in a Minnesota field, used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


But a group in Blooming Prairie—just south of Owatonna—has organized the 1st Annual Coyotes “Fur” Cancer Fundraiser for this Saturday, January 27. A coyote hunt (yes, you read that right) coupled with a chili and soup feed, and a raffle will raise monies to help locals dealing with cancer.

On its Facebook page, event host The Cue Company restaurant promotes the fundraiser:

Enjoy the day by hunting coyotes with your comrades in your personal favorite spots. At dark bring all your coyotes to the back parking lot of The Blooming Prairie Cue Company for a group hunting picture. All coyotes will be collected and sold to a fur buyer with the profits being donated to The Blooming Prairie Cancer Group.


I photographed these bras dangling from Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo, North Dakota. “Bras on Broadway” raises funds for those fighting breast cancer and for the American Cancer Society. I like this creative idea to raise funds and awareness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.


Alright then. That’s certainly a creative idea, but not one which appeals to me personally. I do, though, appreciate the efforts of organizers and the end goal.


At the Rice County Steam and Gas Engines Show, this John Deere tractor helped raise cancer awareness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


Coyotes, by the way, are not a protected animal in Minnesota. They are, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, our state’s most abundant large predator. About 4,000 are shot or trapped here annually for their fur, described by the DNR as soft, warm and luxurious.


I’m uncertain whether White Fox Fur & Feather Company in Pemberton buys coyote pelts. But when I photographed the business in 2010, the company was looking for deer hides. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.


I realize the threat coyotes pose to livestock and other animals. I’m struggling, though, with hunting coyotes as a fundraiser. It’s certainly a novel, attention-getting idea, but…


UPDATE, 1:30 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2018: The Coyotes “Fur” Cancer Fundraiser raised $17,000 and counting, according to an article published in The Owatonna People’s Press. That far surpassed the goal of $2,000 – $5,000. Six hunting parties killed 24 coyotes. The animals’ fur will be sold with proceeds directed to The Blooming Prairie Cancer Group. Additional monies raised at the event came from a raffle, silent auction and chili and soup feed.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Six-plus great reasons to visit Faribault this weekend August 6, 2015

WHETHER YOU LOVE pets, BBQ, art and a whole lot more, you will find it all in Faribault during the next four days. It’s as if my Southern Minnesota community has been saving a summer’s worth of activities for one weekend plus Thursday.

These students were hammering and chiseling away during a class, making quite a racket in the ice arena/fest site.

These students were hammering and chiseling away during a class, making quite a racket in the ice arena/fest site during the 2012 festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Events kick off Thursday evening with Minnesota’s annual woodcarving festival, Carv-Fest, opening in the Faribault Ice Arena at North Alexander Park. Expert woodcarvers teach classes and the general public is free to wander and observe. Faribault is home to noted woodcarvers from the Whillock family (who organize this event) and Marv Kaisersatt. The fest runs Thursday – Saturday.

Lots of dogs and that 1939 date on the right side of the mural.

A section of the Pet Parade mural on the bandshell in Faribault’s Central Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Faribault hosts its 79th annual Pet Parade. The “Into the Jungle” theme promises plenty of creative entries. The cuteness factor rules here.

As dusk settled, volunteers begin lighting the luminaries which stretched and wound around the Rice County Fairgrounds.

As dusk settled, volunteers begin lighting the luminaries which wound around the Rice County Fairgrounds during the 2012 Relay for Life.

Friday brings the 23rd annual Relay for Life of Rice County. Several times I’ve attended this gathering to honor and remember those who have faced cancer and to raise monies and awareness. Most impressive are the honorary luminaries circling the fairgrounds. Activities begin at 4 p.m. and continue late into the evening with closing events the next morning.

Information about the Pregnancy Options LifeCare Center was available at the concert.

The Center promotes life-affirming solutions for women. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Saturday promises to be a jam-packed day in Faribault beginning with the Run Baby Run! 10K, 5K and kids run sponsored by the Pregnancy Options LifeCare Center in support of life. Registration runs from 7:30 a.m. – 8:15 a.m. at Roosevelt Elementary School.

Bikers and others gather for a post hospice ride party at Faribault Harley-Davidson.

Bikers and others gather for a post hospice ride party at Faribault Harley-Davidson in 2012.

Across town The Ride for Hospice at Faribault Harley-Davidson begins with bikes and cars leaving mid-morning. From noon to 2 p.m., there will be food, music and prizes at the Harley shop.

With the weather about as good as it gets on a summer day, attendance was high at the Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest.

A street scene from the 2012 Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest.

Meanwhile, in the heart of historic downtown Faribault, art and food lovers will gather for the annual Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest from 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. There’s a BBQ competition, plenty of food vendors, an art/market fair, recycled art sale, music, kids’ activities, washer tournament and beer garden. The fest raises monies for the Paradise Center for the Arts and the Faribault Mural Society.

And if that isn’t enough. Bethlehem Academy, the Catholic school in town, chose this weekend to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Crafty signage suspended high in a window at The Crafty Maven hints at the crafty goodness you will find inside this historic building at

Crafty signage suspended high in a window at The Crafty Maven hints at the crafty goodness you will find inside this historic building. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Aside from all the organized activities, Faribault is worth a visit for its historic downtown with quaint shops. Among my favorite is The Crafty Maven which is across the street from a new bakery, Ginger Spice Bakery, 209 Central Avenue. The bakery opens its doors on Friday.

An overview of the Peterson building which houses architectural salvage and antiques, left, with the brewery on the left.

F-Town Brewing, Faribault’s new craft brewery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And for you beer lovers, check out F-Town Brewing.

Things are happening in Faribault. I just wish everything wasn’t on the same weekend.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota Faces: Layton Fossum January 16, 2015

Portrait #3: Layton Fossum, the ultimate optimist

Layton Fossum posed for me at the August 2010 Cancer Stroll.

Layton Fossum posed for me at the August 2010 Cancer Stroll.

When I met Layton Fossum 4 ½ years ago at the American Cancer Society Straight River Stroll, I looked into the face of an optimist.

The rural Northfield man, despite a difficult struggle with neck and head cancer (the words he used), was upbeat and positive, living life to the fullest.

It was obvious, from looking at him, that he’d been through a lot, that cancer had taken a physical toll. He had no facial nerves on his right side. He’d undergone reconstructive surgery on his drooping face. He’d lost the hearing in his reshaped right ear. Gold weighted his right eyelid.

But Layton didn’t dwell on any of this.

He lived. And he lived a good life. A joyful life.

Layton died on Monday at age 52, losing his long battle with cancer. He will be buried on Saturday.

But his positivity lives on. In condolences posted on the Benson & Langehough Funeral Home website, friend after friend writes of an upbeat man of faith with a beautiful smile, a great sense of humor, a generous and enthusiastic spirit, the type of person we all wish we could be, but likely aren’t.

My favorite comment comes from the folks at Full Service Battery & Salvage in Farmington. (Layton collected and sold scrap metal besides working numerous other jobs.) They wrote:

Layton was our favorite customer. His positive energy always blasted through our doors like hope! You couldn’t be down with Layton around. We will miss him!

That we should all blast through life with hope, like Layton.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


“It could be cancer, but you’re too healthy” August 7, 2010

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Layton Fossum, cancer survivor, poses with a luminary bag given in his honor at the Straight River Stroll in Faribault Friday night.

MEET LAYTON FOSSUM. Two years ago the Northfield man suffered from a raspy throat, a hearing loss and then a twitch in his face.

Must be a virus, the doctors initially told him. But the then 45-year-old persisted and eventually was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer with a name he struggles to pronounce. So he simply says “head and neck cancer.”

After a 10 ½-hour surgery that was supposed to take three, he emerged with 40 fewer lymph nodes, but thankful to be alive. Next he would explore his post-operative treatment options, traveling to Houston, Seattle, Illinois and California before finally settling on radiation at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Illinois.

Through-out his journey, this Malt-O-Meal employee who missed six months of work due to his cancer and is happier than ever now to go to work, has remained positive. Even today he can joke about his experience. “I told my wife I’m worth more. I have gold in me,” Layton tells me Friday night at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault during the American Cancer Society Straight River Stroll.

Thousands gathered Friday evening at the Straight River Stroll at the Rice County Fairgrounds to raise funds for cancer research to remember, celebrate and pray for those touched by cancer.

Layton points to his right eye and the lump of gold in his eyelid. Because he no longer has facial nerves on the right side, he needs the weight to help close the lid, which will shut only when he closes the opposite lid.

Then Layton shows me his ear, which, too, was reshaped during reconstructive surgery to tighten his drooping face.

Layton has no hearing in his right ear, which was reshaped during reconstructive facial surgery.

Yet, despite all he has undergone, despite the changes in his appearance, Layton remains upbeat and eager to tell his story. He was invited back to Zion and spoke for 1 ½ hours to a roomful of suit-and-ties, he says.

Before his diagnosis two years ago, Layton was the picture of health, the last one you would expect to get cancer, a friend says.

He heard the same from doctors: “It could be cancer, but you’re too healthy.”

Still, he did have cancer. And Friday evening Layton was among those celebrating their cancer-free lives at the Straight River Stroll, a Relay for Life event to fund cancer research. As I walked beside him, switching from his right to left side so he could hear me, I marveled at this man who stopped often, bent low to read the names written on white paper bags in memory of, praying for and rejoicing with those who, like him, endured cancer.

Some lost the battle. Some won. Some are still fighting.

This team of kids set out luminaries by the wagonful.

Among the personalized bags, I discovered this especially touching one drawn by a child in celebration of a father's survival.

Words of encouragement for Mike Schulz.

A luminary honors Sandy Doehling, who died of breast cancer.

Kids and teens, even adults, lined up to have their hair spray painted at a booth to raise funds for cancer research.

A volunteer ratted and sprayed a girl's hair, all to raise monies for cancer research at the Straight River Stroll.

Kids could climb inside this race car, with a hood especially designed to recognize those who have endured cancer. The hood is placed on the car, which races at Elko Speedway, only for special occasions like the Stroll.

Faribault resident Jerry Kes led the Stroll as an honored cancer survivor.

As dusk settled, volunteers began lighting the luminaries which stretched and wound around the fairgrounds.

(This post is written in memory of my dad, who died of esophageal cancer in 2003; my nephew, Justin, who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001; and my mom, who is a breast cancer survivor.)

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling