When Caleb Ulrichs joined the cheerleading squad at his high school in tiny Nashua, Iowa — population 1,663 — it was a bold move. "He was the first male cheerleader in our small town," Jeff Ulrichs, Caleb's dad, tells us. "It was kind of a big step outside the box." It was also vintage Caleb. "He was always a kid who did whatever his heart desired," Jeff says.
Jeff and the rest of the Ulrichs family hope they can inspire others to do the same through a foundation they plan to launch in honor of Caleb, who passed away in January 2019. "It will be an avenue for us to tell Caleb's story and share his passion for doing whatever your heart wants to do," Jeff says.
In addition to his groundbreaking role as a cheerleader, Caleb's story includes stints as a member of the Nashua-Plainfield High School track and field, football and baseball teams. It includes his love of music and marching band, and his desire "to be the person that anyone could come to for any reason," Jeff says. "He believed if you could make a difference in someone's life they'd remember it forever."
Caleb's story also includes five-and-a-half months as a cancer patient, much of that time at Mayo Clinic. His diagnosis came in July 2018, when what was thought to be a benign cyst was diagnosed as a rare form of leukemia. Caleb was admitted to Mayo Clinic Children's Center and began treatment.
Initially, the cancer seemed to be responding. "We got the news on Sept. 5, his mom's birthday, that he was in remission," Jeff says. "It was the best birthday present his mom could have gotten." But the celebration was short-lived. The family returned home to Iowa for several weeks, then came back to Mayo for a second phase of treatment. "We found out then that the disease had returned," Jeff says. "It caught his doctors by surprise." As his classmates began their senior year, Caleb began an aggressive treatment regimen. "His attitude was, 'I beat it once and I'm going to beat it again,'" Jeff tells us. "His attitude inspired a lot of people."
In the year since they lost their son, Jeff and his wife, Tori, and their son, Keegan, have begun their efforts to honor Caleb's memory. One way they're doing that is by paying for meals for families whose children are receiving care at Mayo Clinic. It seemed like a perfect way to honor their son. "We were overwhelmed by the support we got from people when Caleb was sick, and we knew we wanted to give back," Jeff says. "Mealtime was important for us as a family. The only time Caleb felt whole was when we were all together, including his brother, Keegan. We want to give families an opportunity to be together, to laugh and joke and share a meal, and have a few minutes to forget about why they're in the hospital."
One such opportunity happened just before Christmas. "The family dinner sponsored by the Ulrichs was a hit," Tara Lodermeier, a child life specialist, tells us. "Patients and families were so very appreciative and couldn’t say enough positive remarks of gratitude for having a meal provided to them, especially around the holiday season. Caleb’s legacy has definitely been living on."
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