Dakota Knoeferl is a big brother in every sense of the word.
The oldest of three children, Dakota is outnumbered in a family that includes two girls and one boy; the youngest is just three weeks old. But Dakota, the 10-year-old son of Brad and Denise Knoeferl of Harlem, is proud of his big brother status and easily claims younger sister Harlee one of his best friends.
"She's a good sister to me," he said of Harlee, 2. "Me and her are like bugs in a rug."
Their close bond was solidified in December 2004 when Harlee, just 4 months old at the time, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a common form of childhood cancer.
"I was shocked," said Dakota of learning about the diagnosis. During Harlee's hospitalization and subsequent treatments, Dakota spent his first nights away from his parents.
"He had to stay with my mom," Mrs. Knoeferl said. "It was a new experience for him. But if he could have skipped school, he would have been at the hospital every day."
Today, Harlee's cancer is in remission and she has recovered from the chemotherapy treatments she underwent as a baby. To honor her life, the Knoeferl family formed a Relay for Life team earlier this year when they learned that Harlee was on the path to a healthy life.
"It scared us to death," her mother said, "but thank God she was small. She took chemo real well, although she did lose her hair. And since we came through the experience well, we decided to form a Relay for Life team. Harlee was there for the survivor's lap, but Dakota was with me the entire time."
As a new sister enters the Knoeferl family, Dakota is taking a liking to his new status as a big brother to two sisters. And though he asked his mom and dad for a baby brother the second time around, he said he's happy with sister Kaylee. He's given her a few bottles, but refuses to be put on diaper duty.
"No. That's their job," the North Columbia Elementary School student said of his mom and dad.
Dakota's former first-grade teacher, Kathy Holley, remembers her pupil as being very dependable - one who would do nearly anything asked of him.
"Dakota was my 'right-hand man' in first grade," she said. "If I needed someone to run an errand, I could count on him. He was one of those 'best all around' students. He worked hard academically, had impeccable manners and was well-liked among his peers."
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