Central Minnesota community rallies around 10-year-old's battle with cancer
The Albert family quickly integrated itself into the Alexandria community after moving to the area in the spring of 2021. Now that community is doing everything it can to keep 10-year-old Jack's spirits high as he fights cancer after he was diagnosed with Stage IV Burkitt lymphoma on Jan. 24, 2022.
ALEXANDRIA — Under normal circumstances, Alexandria 10-year-old Jack Albert would have been on the ice at the Runestone Community Center on the night of Feb. 8, 2022 when the Cardinals hockey team hosted St. Cloud in a Central Lakes Conference matchup.
That was the plan. Each home game, Alexandria’s varsity team has youth players lead them out on the ice as flag bearers. It’s a fun moment to take center stage, and Jack was signed up to take his turn that night.
Instead, he and his mother, Kim, watched a live stream from a hospital room in Minneapolis as all of Jack’s teammates led the Cardinals onto the ice with his No. 22 jersey.
“It was very emotional,” Kim said. “His team is just a really special group of kids, and the varsity kids too. The whole Alexandria hockey community is amazing. Just so supportive.”
The purpose of that night, as the Cardinals hosted a fundraiser that raised more than $10,000 for the Alberts during a boys and girls hockey doubleheader, was to show Jack how much he meant to them.
On Jan. 24, Jack was diagnosed with Stage IV Burkitt lymphoma. He is receiving inpatient care at the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis where he recently started what will be six cycles of chemotherapy treatments that will take place over the course of six months.
It’s the fight of his young life, but Jack’s father, Joe, said doctors are optimistic.
“They’re very optimistic, and we are too,” Joe said. “The cancer he has is a really aggressive kind, and so the chemo is also really aggressive. He’s got a tremendous fight to get through this, but we fully believe and are optimistic that he can.”
Alexandria quickly becomes home
It took very little time for the Alberts -- Joe, Kim, Jack and his 12-year-old sister, Victoria -- to integrate themselves into the Alexandria community.
They moved here from Bloomington in the spring of 2021 after previously spending as much time as they could in Alexandria at a cabin that has been in the family for years.
Kim and Joe were both able to work remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it was always the plan to move to the lakes area if it was ever possible.
A big part of that draw was because of Jack. Jack loves hockey in the winter. He loves baseball in the spring and summer, and he loves fishing any chance he can get.
“We bass fish all the time during the summer,” Joe said. “When we first moved up here, Jack wanted to go fishing every day no matter what it was, if it was 30 mile-per-hour winds and 40 degrees. It was like, ‘Hey, bud, we live up here now. We can take a day off.’”
The Alberts made fast friends in Alexandria. Joe coached baseball. Kim volunteered within the hockey program, and the family got involved in their church at Calvary Lutheran. Jack and Victoria’s involvement in activities led to even more friendships.
“We’ve only been there nine months, but we love it so hard,” Kim said. “We’ve thrown ourselves into the community.”
Hard to put into words
Jack now has an entire community pulling for him.
After the cancer diagnosis, Joe and Kim created a Facebook page called “Albert Strong” to share updates on how Jack was doing.
The wall is filled with photos and videos the family has received offering him encouragement. Through help getting the word out from a parent in Alexandria’s youth hockey program, Jack’s story has reached some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment.
Former Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, musician Zac Brown, and professional bass angler Seth Feider of Bloomington are some of the notable names who have sent well wishes through video.
Joe’s siblings created a GoFundMe page for Jack to help the family with expenses that will come over the next several months. People have donated more than $46,000 as of Feb. 11.
“It’s incredible. Every time we talk about it, you just kind of run out of adjectives to describe it,” Joe said of all the support. “It’s truly meant everything. It’s people that we haven’t known for that long, people we don’t know who are just taking it upon themselves to make us feel not just welcomed, but like family. It’s truly amazing. Humbling is a good word for it too.”
Jack got a video from the high school Alexandria boys hockey team with individual players sending him their encouragement. He watched it over and over again.
“Those are his heroes, so it meant a lot that they would take the time to do that,” Joe said. “They’re kids he’s watched and looked up to.”
Jack’s immune system is so weak right now that Joe and Kim are about the only family members who can be with him in the hospital.
Kim has left the Twin Cities one night, to be with Victoria, since Jack was admitted on Jan. 18. Joe goes back and forth between Alexandria and Minneapolis, but knows he cannot make contact with many other people with the pandemic still going on.
That made attending the fundraiser at the hockey doubleheader a little nerve wracking, but Joe wanted to be there to say thank you. After the girls game, Joe, Victoria and other members of the Albert family went out to center ice as both the girls and boys varsity players gathered a wide distance around them in a circle.
“We’re fortunate to be able to play the game, and we just want to play for Jack and remind him that we’re there for him,” Alexandria girls hockey coach Molly Arola said. “We’re always going to be rooting for him no matter what.”
Joe took a microphone and got the chance to voice his appreciation while Kim and Jack watched through a live stream.
“Jack was happy to see his family there, to see the stands filled, to see his team there, and to see both Alexandria boys and girls varsity teams there circling around our family,” Kim said. “That was very symbolic of how they have surrounded us with support and love and prayer throughout this entire ordeal.”
Staff within the Alexandria school system is doing what it can to make things as easy as possible for the Alberts. Victoria, who is staying with her grandparents right now in Carlos, is a 6th-grader at Discovery Middle School.
“The schools have been unbelievable. They’ve wrapped their arms around Victoria,” Kim said. “Her teachers, coaches, principal, social worker. Every week they’re checking in, sometimes daily, saying this is what’s going on. That takes this huge burden off of us because we feel so guilty. She needs us too. She’s 12.”
‘He is the strongest person I know’
Jack, a 4th-grader at Woodland Elementary, had already missed some school due to feeling sick before his cancer diagnosis.
He is now enrolled in the city of Minneapolis Public Schools system so he can meet with a private tutor. They communicate with staff from Woodland to stay on the same page so Jack can jump back into Woodland when he is ready.
Kim said the goal is to get him back with his classmates as soon as possible. First through Google meets, then hopefully in person. Jack will be in the hospital for two months as he goes through the most aggressive chemotherapy sessions.
“Then the next four are a little less aggressive, so we’re hoping during that time we’ll be able to have him at Woodland for a period of time,” Kim said.
Kim and Joe want to do everything to keep Jack feeling like a kid and not a cancer patient.
“That’s what Alexandria has done for us,” Kim said. “Jack’s hockey team checks in with him morning, noon and night. They’re at the games and holding his jersey, they’re skating him through the lineup. They’re calling him before and after. They just talk to him like his friends. They make him feel like Jack and not a cancer patient. That’s needed. They send care packages like you would not believe. It brings him so much joy.”
There are days right now when Jack can barely lift his legs to get out of bed to move his body during physical therapy, but he finds the courage to do it.
“He takes it one step at a time,” Joe said. “He fights through it, and has that positive attitude, fighting spirit. It’s really easy when you’re dealing with this kind of stuff to wonder why or get down in the dumps, but he doesn’t do that.”
Cancer and the chemotherapy treatments have weakened Jack’s body. It has not dampened the spirit that so many people love him for.
“He is the strongest person I know. He’s so strong,” Kim said. “There’s the chemo, this poison, going into his veins and he’s just singing and playing the guitar and talking to his buddies. He’s doing amazing, and he’s just so positive. He’s always upbeat and sunny no matter what. He’s physically and mentally the strongest, most positive person that I know.”