by Merrie Sue Holtan
Photos by Kim J Photography
Hope. Fight. Supporting the fighters. Admiring the survivors. Honoring the taken. Never giving up hope.
These could be words of encouragement, a motto written on an athlete’s wall, or words from a coach urging a team to persevere through challenges. At Frazee High School, these words are so much more.
These are words on T-shirts – fundraising T-shirts. Everyone in Frazee–from the baseball, basketball, football and track teams to the school to the entire community– has pitched in to bolster the effort. The mission is to help the fighter, Sonia Fleisher, and her family, husband Mike, and children Audreana (Ana), 17, Cole, 15, and Broden, 14. Ana, Cole and Broden are all three-sport athletes.
It was a warm October day in 2013, when Sonia sat each child down one-by-one and told them she had breast cancer. Life changed dramatically. For Sonia it meant surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and many trips to Detroit Lakes and Fargo. Then a remission.
Broden, then a fifth grader, was shocked when his mom told him.
“I didn’t know much about cancer,” he says. “I went right to my iPad to look up more about it.”
“My reaction was the same as his,” says brother Cole. “I didn’t really know what it all meant.”
Full-blown into sports
Sonia (Glenz), a Frazee native and licensed plumber, had always been a worker. She first apprenticed in her dad’s plumbing business. Later in her career, she managed the Pizza Hut in Detroit Lakes and operated a home day care. She and Mike met at a dart league game in 1995. He said he beat her at darts, won her heart, and the rest was history.
Sonia ran track for Frazee High School and her 4×100 relay school record stood for 26 years. Mike, who works for a construction company, played high school basketball, tennis and ran track for Waubun, Minn. He has helped coach his kids’ teams through the years.
“Our family was ‘full blown’ into sports and Sonia was such a trooper,” Mike says. “She’d return from her treatments to watch a game if she was sick or not sick. Sonia would never allow us to watch sports on TV, however. She claimed our time at home as family time.”
“She was there for us as much as she could be,” Ana says. “And she always sat in the same place in the gym, surrounded by other parents. You have to understand that my mom was ‘a mom’ to all the girls, especially those who had divorced families. She touched so many hearts. We all grew up together. She was a pretty cool parent.”
Ana, a senior, plays volleyball, basketball and softball and she hopes one day to become a teacher. She has attended volleyball camp at the University of Minnesota.
“Ana has a passion for teaching and is willing to help whenever asked,” says Frazee volleyball coach, Tavia Bachmann. “She is a quiet leader and role model in athletics and helps in the summers as a softball coach.”
Broden, in eighth grade, plays football, basketball and runs track, specializing in the 100, 200, 4×100 and long jump. Cole, a ninth grader, plays the same sports as his brother. At 5-foot-10, Cole hopes to be taller than his 6-foot-3 dad someday. Both boys aspire to play college basketball.
Mike believes in the sense of camaraderie and teamwork sports builds within kids. His specialty is basketball, and he feels teaching the basics of dribbling, passing, blocking, rebounding and being able to use either hand for layups is essential.
“I’m probably harder on my own kids when I am coaching them,” Mike says. Three heads nod in tandem.
“I get frustrated with myself sometimes,” Broden says. “Dad helps me keep composure and get better at the little things a coach might not see. And he’s also pretty loud at games.” Three heads nod again.
All three athletes began in Frazee’s summer recreational sports programs, as well as league play and local camps. Cole has attended basketball camp at University of Minnesota-Duluth and at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton with Broden. For extra conditioning, Cole will run the four miles to school and four miles home two or three times a week.
“It’s great to meet new guys at camp, especially the college players and experience different coaching styles,” Cole says.
Volleyball coach Bachmann says that even in Sonia’s tougher days, the Fleisher family was the first to raise their hands to help out in any capacity and were some of the biggest supporters of extra-curricular activities in Frazee.
“They helped with fundraising, setting up, tearing down, working clock and running endless errands,” she says. “Their support is immeasurable.”
Nick Courneya, activities director at Frazee, says the Fleishers are what a strong family looks like: supporting one another, lending a hand to anybody, and being great role models for youth.
The final stretch
“In March of 2015, they found another lump in Sonia’s neck,” says Mike. “It was in her lymph nodes, going from stage two cancer to stage four.”
New treatments intensified first in the Twin Cities and then at Cancer Centers of America in Zion, Ill., every three weeks.
Back in Frazee, the community continued their fundraising support for travel and medical expenses. Community payback time.
“Mom loved basketball and she would still try to make it to games,” Broden says.
“It’s such a small community and we were overwhelmed with support, donations, projects and programs,” Mike says. “Really astounding.”
Sophia Strand, a second grader who also had a teacher with cancer, gave away her piggy bank to the University of Minnesota for Cancer Research.
“Sophia also made and sold Cupcakes for Cancer at several community events,” Ana says, “and raised more than $3,000 for cancer research.”
It was a cold day in January 2016, when Cancer Center of America could no longer treat Sonia age 42. She returned home and Hospice care assisted her last hours. She died on January 15, 2016.
Broden estimates there were about 80 Frazee school kids who hopped a bus to attend Sonia’s funeral at United Methodist Church in Detroit Lakes, where the crowd overflowed the sanctuary.
The sports teams had honored Sonia in some way, by wearing pink T-shirts and warm-up shirts, signing a baseball in her honor, taking a moment of silence at games, and dedicating games to her.
The sports booster parents presented a plaque to honor her, and it now hangs above the bleachers where she always sat. Below her photo it reads: “In loving memory of Sonia. May she forever watch over us.”
“It’s been a learning curve for me for sure, “ says Mike. “I took for granted a lot of what my wife did.”
Filling Sonia’s shoes has required a collective family effort.
Sonia’s parents have tried to attend games, especially Ana’s since she is a senior. Sonia’s sister Theresa and community members also helped fill in the role for their mom. Ana helps organize the home, meals and game schedules on a color-coded chart so everyone can get from point A to point B at the right time.
Last summer, Mike and the kids took their first road trip to visit family in Iowa, something they hope to continue as a family.
“Sports definitely takes our mind off the sadness, and then the reality sets in,” Ana says. “We have dedicated our seasons to her. I only wish my mom had more time for what she wanted to do in her life. That makes me sad.”
“Through this huge loss, the family has not forgotten the light and love their mother/wife brought to Frazee,” says Coach Bachmann. “Even though Sonia is no longer with us, her love for her kids and this community is still displayed through her family.”