Over the weekend, a group of Chanhassen High School students remembered a classmate that never made it to graduation, honoring a student who died before he turned 10 years old but made a lasting impression.
Inside the brand new school, a new tradition began last year: A student who died would be given an honorary diploma. This year, the diploma was given to the family of a boy who didn't live long enough to enter middle school.
While most high school graduates are thinking about their future, Jesse Kleve and Blake Johnson focused on the past to remember their friend and former classmate, Mitch Chepokas.
"I didn't really know that we'd be best friends," Kleve said. "Meeting him was a lot different than saying goodbye."
Chepokas was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2002 and died just 10 months later, but in that time, he started something that has since touched countless lives.
"He understood things that were way beyond his years and he saw needs that others had -- people that didn't have what he had," recalled Becky Chepokas, Mitch's mom. "He just had it in him to want to help them."
After finishing 30 doses of radiation therapy and 12 rounds of chemotherapy, Mitch Chepokas emptied his bank account, divided $6,000 into envelopes and gave it to the kids he met at the hospital.
"He looked at me and said, 'Well, I want to do it next year,'" recalled Steve Chepokas, Mitch's father. "I said, 'Son, you're not going to be here next year.' He knew he was dying, and it was then that he looked at me and he goes, 'After I die, Dad, I want you to do that.'"
Mitch Chepokas made his father pinky swear that he would continue other kids who were battling cancer -- and since then, millions have been raised by The Miracles of Mitch's Foundation.
So though there was an empty seat in Chanhassen High School's class of 2012, his friends say they knew he was graduating with them.
Johnson and Kleve were awarded a $2,500 rotary scholarship, and they plan to put that money toward their goal of raising $10,000 for the foundation.
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