Matthew Pafko selfless in the face of illness

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2009 - 12:14 PM

Dying of cancer, the Blaine teenager used his last precious days to help raise money for the homeless.

Submitted photo Matthew Pafko

In many ways, Matthew Pafko was your ordinary teenager. He played soccer and football at Blaine High School. He was an avid Twins and Vikings fan. He enjoyed hanging out with his friends and cousins. And he loved to eat at pizza buffets.

But even as the 16-year-old endured intense pain while battling brain and spine cancer, he spent his final days raising money for the homeless.

Before he died on July 20, family members and friends and classmates at Blaine High School rallied around his cause. They held an ice cream social and sold hundreds of green wrist bands that said "Matthew's Way," a slogan to exemplify how the teen didn't let cancer get in the way of living and celebrating life, said Matthew's mother, Deborah. One of Pafko's former teachers at Roosevelt Middle School organized a dance to raise more money. Students at rival Champlin Park High School held their own fundraiser. The efforts brought in about $3,500 for Sharing and Caring Hands, a shelter Mary Jo Copeland runs for the poor and homeless in north Minneapolis. The total could rise to more than $7,000 when a matching donation from Matthew's father's company is made.

"Matthew was a hero to me," said Copeland. "Here is a boy who was suffering and put aside self to make a difference. He was a beautiful example to the community of what you can do by being unselfish."

Pafko was surrounded by friends and family members when he died of medulloblastoma at home in Blaine.

Pafko was 9 when doctors first discovered a spot on his brain in 2001. He underwent surgery and more than two years of aggressive chemotherapy. Despite his sickness, Pafko's enthusiasm for life never waned. He rarely missed a day of school, had weekend sleepovers and parties with friends and cousins, whom he adored, and watched Twins and Vikings games on TV. He was looking forward to attending a game in the new Twins stadium and maybe seeing Brett Favre in a Vikings jersey, his mother said.

The idea for the Sharing and Caring Hands fundraiser came after his mom heard a radio program that featured another sick teenager who raised money for the homeless.

"Matthew was not the only boy to get cancer," his mother said. "This was an opportunity to make something good happen and help somebody else, to think about somebody else in your darkest moments. The lesson was, the importance of treating others how you want to be treated."

There was nothing more important to Matthew than family, and they were at his side as he went through treatments and sleepless nights, and as he celebrated life's milestones, including getting his driver's license and catching a long pass in one of his football games. Because of his unwavering passion for friends, family and life, Nancy Hall, Blaine High School assistant principal, called Matthew a "superstar."

"He was remarkable young man," said Tammy Gruenwald, the Roosevelt teacher who organized the dance. "He was quiet, respectful and a tender kid who never put himself before others."

In addition to his mother, Matthew is survived by his father, Jay; two brothers, Andrew and Jason; and three sisters, Jessica, Alexandra and Ashley, all of Blaine.

Services have been held.

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