"Sisters" Jaimie Althoff and Kellie Burrows didn't know each other until seven years ago. But since meeting they've grown into a tight sisterhood not created by genetics but circumstances.
They met when the Big Brothers Big Sisters program started locally at Westside Elementary School. Burrows visited Althoff at school, doing crafts and other activities.
Soon they were stepping out together for movies, eating, sporting events and sometimes "girlie stuff." Althoff, now 14, remembers going to the zoo and circus and other fun places.
"I've seen more movies with her than I've seen with my friends," she said.
Burrows remembers hearing a friend talk about a similar program and thinking how she'd like to do something like that, too. When she heard of a pilot BBBS program starting, she went down to register.
"It's a good part of your life," said Burrows. "Something fun to do."
She and Althoff say as far as they know, they're the longest-running Big/Little relationship resulting from the St. Croix Valley program.
Althoff remembers the first time they tried baking cookies together: Burrows burnt them. The two laugh about another recipe that was missing an important ingredient and said lately they've been making boxed brownies.
"If I didn't have fun, I wouldn't be here," said Althoff.
She said she probably most enjoys doing BBBS fundraising events with Burrows, like pancake breakfasts. The two have spoken on the organization's behalf, and Althoff works at the BBBS office each summer when she's out of school.
Burrows said she enjoys when they speak together because they're passionate about the program.
"You, as 'the Big,' get way more back than you ever thought," she said.
She said her 'Little' keeps her young and in touch with things she wouldn't be otherwise. Burrows and Althoff can talk about anything, and Big Sister says she has it's easy since she's not responsible for discipline.
Burrows thinks people worry about the time commitment but said they'll soon find it isn't enough. She and Althoff get together as often as they like and whenever they can -- usually three times a month and often at Burrows' house or starting out at Subway.
"...I've learned it's good to give," said Burrows. "It's been fun watching her grow up."
Hard, unexpected turn
Burrows said, "It was so hard telling her about my breast cancer."
Neither can remember how many days after the Oct. 22 diagnosis it was when she called Althoff's mom, then went over to visit. Althoff said her mother cleared everyone out of the house, and she knew something was "up."
"I was freaking out. I knew something wasn't right," Althoff said.
Burrows said, "So then I told her and we just kind of hugged and cried."
Burrows underwent surgery to remove a lump, finished chemotherapy two weeks ago and now begins radiation. After that she'll take a maintenance drug.
While weakened by experience and some rough episodes, Burrows explains that her cancer was Stage I and her prognosis is very good.
She said at first doctors said the lump, detected during her first mammogram, would probably be benign. Burrows got a phone call in the morning at work telling her it wasn't.
Feeling shocked, she called her husband, Bob. She said that, oddly, she worked all day at her job as advertising director for the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
"I'll never forget that day," Burrows said and knows Bob won't either.
She said he's been great and that it's really friends and family that have gotten her through this, including Althoff.
The two even braved the salon visit every cancer patient dreads.
Althoff said, "We went to the salon to get her hair cut the first time, and, oh, it was so sad."
Burrows said they were both a bit teary eyed but felt better once they realized she could donate her long, thick hair to the program Locks of Love. Burrows looks at it as a win-win since the haircut was free and her hair would make children's wigs.
Both agree that Althoff needed something tangible to do about Burrows' condition, so she took charge and assembled a team of 13 people to honor her Big at this year's Relay for Life. First, she talked to her mom and OK'd it with Burrows.
Her Big says she believes in the cause and that she might not be in as good of shape without the American Cancer Society's research, which the relay benefits.
"I just wanted to be on a Relay for Life team," Althoff said.
She already raised nearly $200 by organizing a hat day at Meyer Middle School, for which students paid a dollar to wear a hat all day. The Little said she tried to recruit enough teens to keep the team walking even after the adults are asleep.
The team recently got cowboy hats and pink bandanas to match this year's relay theme, Kickin' Cancer.
"She's got such a positive attitude," Burrows said about Althoff.
Big Sister said Althoff's been a comfort to her during this trying time. That along with the support of her loved ones, good insurance and understanding coworkers, has Burrows feeling positive.
She urges women to get their mammograms, saying someone at work asked about it twice. The second time is when she made the appointment that revealed a lump.
"I'm so lucky and blessed," she said.
She hopes her and Althoff's story helps people realize how much they can gain not only from the BBBS program, but also the Relay for Life.