A Duluth girl's high-spirited battle with a form of cancer has prompted hundreds of thousands of dollars in giving aimed at fighting pediatric cancer.

Nathalia Hawley died on April 19 at age 15, less than three years after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer. Her story already had been highlighted by the Minnesota-based Children's Cancer Research Fund in calling attention to its Great Cycle Challenge USA, an annual fundraiser.

Although the fundraiser takes place in June, the campaign began in January. It gained momentum after Nathalia's death, said John Hallberg, CEO of the fund.

Nathalia Hawley (left) cuddles with her little sister Gabi Augusta. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Augusta
Nathalia Hawley (left) cuddles with her little sister Gabi Augusta. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Augusta
"That's really what got people ... inspired to try and do something so that future osteosarcoma patients didn't have the same outcome that she did," he said.

Inspired they were. By late last week, the 3,067 members of "TeamNat" had raised more than $750,000, more than the next 50 teams combined. They had pedaled a combined total of 97,297 miles, far more than any other team - but they also have far more participants than any other team.

It's an "amazing amount of support," said Nathalia's mom, Kathryn Augusta. "It's amazing to see people wearing T-shirts that say Team Nat. ... That's my kid's name, and I'm so honored that she is inspiring people. She is still giving after she is gone."

In the history of the challenge, which began in 2015, only one effort has been comparable, Hallberg said. Last year, a team that formed on behalf of Callie Cavanaugh, a Pennsylvania girl with cancer, attracted more than 1,600 riders and raised just over $827,000 by the end of June 2018.

It's anticipated that Team Nat will end the month at more than $1 million, Hallberg said.

People who never knew Nathalia, such as a California woman who has raised more than $5,000, were inspired by her story and joined Team Nat, he added.

Those who did know her say the inspiration is genuine.

"She was incredibly compassionate, so courageous and so filled with gratitude," said Pastor Kathy Nelson of Peace United Church of Christ. Nelson baptized Nathalia on Christmas Eve 2003 and officiated at her celebration of life on April 27.

Nathalia Hawley strikes a pose last summer while visiting a child with cancer. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Augusta
Nathalia Hawley strikes a pose last summer while visiting a child with cancer. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Augusta
At the visitation, Nelson recalled, Nathalia was surrounded by lights and dressed in her "going-home" dress, which she designed with the help of Randy Fenoli of TV's "Say Yes to the Dress" during a personal visit.

That had fulfilled Nathalia's request from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Augusta said.

In her homily, Nelson quoted several remembrances of Nathalia and spoke about the teenager's love of art. A couple of months before Nathalia died, the church set aside a corner above a stairway for a gallery of her work, including homemade greeting cards, a scarf, painted rocks and watercolor and acrylic paintings.

A piece of Nathalia Hawley's artwork hangs in her gallery at Peace United Church of Christ. Tyler Schank / News Tribune
A piece of Nathalia Hawley's artwork hangs in her gallery at Peace United Church of Christ. Tyler Schank / News Tribune
Amanda McElray Hunter, who curated the gallery, wrote about Nathalia's use of vibrant and cheerful colors. Nathalia was the kind of person "who gathers art supplies for other young people to use who are undergoing treatment at children's hospitals across the country; who creates a hilarious painting based on the Bristol Stool Scale and gives it to her doctor to make them laugh," Hunter wrote.

Augusta talked about her daughter's sense of humor and joked about the one-liners she'd unleash when she was on a "morphine high."

"I remember Nat being on a little high every so often," Laura Sobiech agreed, chuckling. "And she knew it, and she would embrace that."

Sobiech's son, Zach Sobiech, died of osteosarcoma in 2013 at age 18. When he knew he was dying, he wrote and recorded a farewell song called "Clouds." The song drew nearly 3 million hits on YouTube, and iTunes royalties generated more than $300,000 for the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund that the Children's Cancer Research Fund created, Hallberg said.

That fund since has ballooned to more than $1.5 million, he said. All of the money raised by Team Nat also will go to osteosarcoma research.

"Sarcoma is one of those cancers where, sadly, we've made very little progress," Hallberg said. "We're sort of treating it the same way we were 40 years ago."

Augusta and Sobiech are all too aware of the statistics. Only 4 percent of federal funding for cancer research goes to pediatric forms of the disease. Osteosarcoma is uncommon enough that it's considered an "orphan" disease, Augusta said, and it gets only a very small share of that small slice of the pie.

Still, the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund is starting to make a difference, she said. Nathalia was able to participate in at least 11 clinical trials because of research funding.

"We all know it's not the silver bullet, but it gave us hope," Augusta said.

Sobiech, who works for Children's Cancer Research Fund, first met Augusta two years ago in an elevator at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital where Nathalia was being treated. She was there to visit with another family, but when she heard that Nathalia had osteosarcoma, she looked in on her.

"(I) was immediately smitten with Nat," Sobiech said. "She was just a unique human being. As so many of these kids are, they're so incredible in their ability to rise above the suffering that they're going through, the physical pain and the physical suffering and to just live life. And that's what Nat was in spades. She was just a bright light."

Nathalia loved people, Sobiech said.

"It seemed to me that she welcomed anybody who came into her room," she said. "She didn't build walls. She let people in, and enjoyed them. That's what I loved the most about her. She just loved people for who they were."

Nathalia has appeared in the pages of the News Tribune before. She was interviewed in August 2016 as part of a story about a newly opened solarium for older kids at the Essentia Health-St.Mary's Children's Hospital. Nathalia, who was with her grandmother and younger sister Gabi, was bouncing back after being treated for a dangerously low white blood cell count.

She had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma just 12 days earlier. Her world had turned upside down, but one wouldn't have known that from her cheerful demeanor. She showed off her skill on a Star Trek-themed pinball game and offered nothing but enthusiastic reviews for the solarium and her treatment.

Asked where she went to school, Nathalia said she would have been attending Lincoln Park Middle School but would have to be tutored at home instead because of the risk of infection. The obviously sociable girl explained this without a hint of feeling sorry for herself.

That attitude continued to stand out in her daughter, Augusta said.

"Even toward the end, when she was in so much pain, she still took the time to thank people and to make them feel like they mattered," she said. "That's what struck a lot of people. Even though she had (so much) to complain about ... she put that aside. She cared about others."

Nathalia was in hospice care when the decision was made to form Team Nat. It's a gratifying response, her mom said.

"I'm so fortunate to be able to share bits and pieces of her," Augusta said. "Because I want people to know who she is. It makes her life so much richer. This is what she wanted. She wanted to leave a legacy.

"Maybe this is the start of the legacy."


To learn more

• Visit the Team Nat page at greatcyclechallenge.com/Teams/TeamNat

• Watch Zach Sobiech sing "Clouds" at youtube.com/watch?v=sDC97j6lfyc


Coming next week

Find out how a very long day on the Superior Hiking Trail is raising money to pay for children's cancer research, in Health.