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Kelly Smith, Published December 23 2008

Gifts brighten day of 8-year-old fighting cancer

Ian Hopfauf is known as a jokester. Even when the second-grader was diagnosed with cancer last year, he still cracked a joke.

“I was glad he still had a sense of humor,” said Spencer, his 10-year-old brother.

But when the battle with cancer tested this 8-year-old’s humor and hopes, his Clara Barton Hawthorne Elementary classmates in Fargo stepped up.

“It’s just been completely overwhelming,” said his father, Richard Stewart. “It’s been really heartwarming.”

On Monday, more than 300 classmates and friends watched as Ian opened gifts made possible by the students and the Make a Wish Foundation.

From video games to a laptop, each present unwrapped was welcomed by Ian’s bright smile and by a crescendo of applause and cheers from his peers.

The gifts aren’t just for play, but to help Ian pass the time during what can be four- to six-hour hospital visits.

“This wish is really given from kids, from the heart,” Ian’s teacher, Michele Isaacson, said, tearing up. “I couldn’t think of another family that would welcome it with such warmth.”

During the past month, the school and some local businesses raised nearly $2,500 for “Ian’s Wish.”

“This is the most we’ve seen an elementary school raise,” said Molly Hofker of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which received the donations and will have money left over to go to another child in need. “It’s amazing.”

“This is just amazing, because he’ll be able to do his own things,” said his mom, DeAnn Hopfauf.

It was a bright point in a difficult year for the family.

“It’s one of those things you don’t think is happening,” Hopfauf said of Ian’s diagnosis of T cell lymphoblastic lymphoma last year. “It’s an aggressive cancer. There were times we didn’t think he would be here for Christmas.”

Even Ian got disheartened at times.

“He had some days where he’s not felt well,” Isaacson said of Ian’s trips to the nurse’s office to lie down. He’d tell her: “ ‘I hate this cancer stuff.’ ”

But overall, Ian refused to let his spirits get down.

“He’s always upbeat,” Isaacson said. “He always has a smile on his face.”

“He wants to just fight it,” added Ian’s father.

And it’s working.

With no evidence of cancer in Ian, his family is hoping for fewer hospital visits in the near future. But the battle isn’t over; Ian has at least two more years of chemotherapy.

“We’ve got a long road ahead of us,” his mom said.

It’s a long road made easier by the community of kids who support their classmate the best they can.

“I think I’m going to play one of these games when I come home,” Ian said, not taking his eyes off a new video game. “I can take this wherever I want. It looks cool, too.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515