Sven Strong: An 8th-grader's cancer journey, the community behind him and a spirit that can't be stopped

Sven Strong: An 8th-grader's cancer journey, the community behind him and a spirit that can't be stopped

By Tyler Dahlgren

It’s a Tuesday morning in the corner pocket of Nebraska when Sven Rauch walks through the Dundy County Stratton office doors, introduces himself and reaches for a handshake.

The eighth-grader’s Helena Acres hat is ever-so-slightly cocked to the side, his maroon t-shirt tucked in tight to a pair of blue jeans. Sven’s belt buckle shines a polished gold and, as the owner of a lawncare business, his boots are worn from hard work.

Sven sits down and is asked to tell his story. From the start. Nearly a year ago, when a bout with morning sickness and an ensuing seizure led to a CT scan that revealed a non-germinoma pineal gland brain tumor.

He takes a deep breath, his composure remarkable and steady, and begins with a hint of a smile. That’s the thing about Sven and his spirit. It’s infectious, and it can’t be stopped.

“Sven has always been a very driven, motivated kid,” said his mother, Nicole Rauch, a native of Germany who met Sven’s father, Nathan, while he was in the Army and overseas.

That work ethic is well known around the Benkleman community, said Dundy County Stratton superintendent Jackie Anderson.

“We call him our entrepreneur,” she said.

Sven’s lawncare business, which started with one mower, has turned into a full-scale operation. He’s purchased a tractor mower, a trailer, two more push powers, a rototiller, a weed eater and a leaf blower.

All on his own.

“Sven is an extremely hard worker,” said Dundy County Stratton 7-12 principal Ethan Sullivan. “That’s the biggest thing about him. He’s a kid you can count on.”

So while Sven’s diagnosis last summer was an unfathomable and devastating blow, it was clear that cancer had picked a more-than-formidable opponent in this one-of-a-kind junior high kid.

“I’ve never seen him shy away from a challenge,” Sullivan said. “And, obviously, this was a heck of a challenge that he had to face.”

Luckily, he wouldn’t have to face it alone. Not in this community. Not in this school district. Support came fast. The Dundy County Stratton High School’s FFA group organized a massive cornhole tournament, at its own bequest. There was an auction and a golf tournament and "Sven: German for Moxie" t-shirts for sale.

“Sven is someone that’s easy to support,” Sullivan said. “He’s easy to rally behind. There’s not a single person that would ever say a bad word about him. Our kids rallied behind him because he’s a great kid.”

The support came in waves and kept a family staring down a nightmare going strong.

“That helped me a lot,” said Sven. “It gave me confidence.”

To receive the right kind of radiation, Sven had to travel all the way to a hospital in Memphis. He received chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital in Omaha, too, spending what should have been the first semester of his eighth-grade year in lonely hospital rooms. Though he was a long ways from home, Sven felt comforted by the prayers going up in Benkleman.

“It meant a lot to me, because sitting there in the hospital it can feel like no one cares,” he said. “Like no one loves you. But then I saw the town get together and do all these things for me, and I was like ‘Wow, they really do care.’ They were dropping food off at our house for my dad and calling me all the time. I just appreciate everybody so much for doing that for me.”

Between regaling the hospital staff in Memphis with his stories of living in Western Nebraska, Sven gained new perspective on the place that he calls home and the people he calls neighbors and friends.

“We saw a lot of families in Memphis who were going broke without being able to work and taking care of their child,” Sven said. “And it’s just amazing when you live in a small town and everybody gets together and does a fundraiser so that we didn’t have to worry about that.”

Sven’s biggest fear, his mom said, was missing out on school and not seeing his friends, who had stepped up to keep his lawncare business going in its owner’s absence.

“What they did at the school was just awesome,” Nicole said. “It helped him so much. It kept his spirits up while he was going through hell.”

That’s where this story gets really cool. Enter: ESU 15’s robot.

The idea came about during conversations with ESU 15 Staff Development Director Kelly Erickson. Dundy County Stratton offers the use of robots and drones to the upper level students in its technology department. What if Sven didn’t have to miss eighth-grade at all?

“I was in study hall one day, and some of the students were driving this robot up and down the hall,” Sven remembers. “And Mrs. (Lisa) Fox told me, ‘That’s what you’re going to be using.’”

And so, from his hospital bed in Omaha, Sven took the controls of a robot and attended school in Benkleman.

“At first, I didn’t want to do school, but I knew I had to so I just got on and did it,” he said. “It was hard to control the robot, but I got the hang of it after a while. It ended up helping me a lot. I was like ‘Well, I’ve still got something to fight for. When I come home, I still have my friends.’”

Sven was back in class. He’d receive texts every morning asking if he would be “getting on” school that day. Groups of students would follow his robot down the halls between classes. When it was time to roll through uneven grounds to get to his ag classes in the shop, his friends were there to lift him up. This time, more than metaphorically.

“He probably couldn’t even see it, he could only see where he was going, but there would be four or five or six students in a cluster around the robot, just trying to see Sven,” said Anderson. “It was way cool.”

His teachers were instantly comfortable with the innovation, too, always thrilled when he'd log on. As for Sven’s family? They were amazed.

“I did not think that would be possible,” said Nicole. “I just thought we were going to do it like we did when we were in (pandemic) lockdown, so that was awesome. He could talk to his friends and he was able to laugh and joke with them. Just to see them, that was pretty cool for him.”

Sven’s spirit was boosted, and it was winning the fight.

The homecoming was one of joy and adjustment.

Sven was happy to be home, but there was something different about him.

“He was giving all his stuff away and wasn’t really attached to materialistic things anymore,” said his mom. “He’s very religious now. He says a prayer every night. It changed him.”

One day, Nathan and Nicole Rauch had a little boy. The next, she said, they had a little man.

“Before, I was very money driven because of my business,” Sven said. “I wanted more and more. Now, I’m just happy to be healthy. I see all those kids in Memphis and I’m like ‘Wow, they don’t even have legs. And I have two healthy legs and here I am complaining.’ It makes you grateful for what God has given you.”

Sven made his grand return this winter, and the school was intentionally careful in how it welcomed its most inspirational 13-year-old back into the building.

“I spoke with the kids and told them ‘You’re going to want to hug him and all that stuff, that’ll be your initial reaction, but for a while we are going to need to be careful because Sven could get sick,'” said Sullivan. “We had wipes and masks and took all the precautions we could. And now, he’s back to being a kid.”

More than that, Sven is now a school employee, having been hired by this district this semester. He’s gaining strength with every day. His hair has all grown back, and soon he’ll ditch the hat. During the school day, anyway.

“I feel completely normal again,” Sven said. “Once in a while, I’ll feel a weird tingling sensation, but that’s about it.”

Sven’s story isn’t all about a brain tumor. It didn’t start there and it isn’t ending there. The courage he showed, a deeply-rooted strength that inspired an entire community, makes for a great chapter, but Sven’s story is sensational enough on its own legs.

Not many eighth-graders living in the wide open spaces of Western Nebraska are fluent in German, after all. But that’s Sven for you, the teenaged business owner who can light up a room simply by walking, or (this past handful of months) rolling, right into it.

“Yeah, he’s a little charmer,” admits Nicole, who like her son is eagerly anticipating plenty of warm summer days on Lake McConaughy in Sven’s new pontoon boat, which was gifted by Make-A-Wish Nebraska. “He always wanted one (a boat). He got a jet ski from my dad, so he’s just eager to get out on the water.”

It’ll be a blast, because anything with Sven usually is.

Next fall, he’ll play football for the Tigers. This spring, he plans on running track. In between, he’ll listen to Johnny Cash and watch Star Wars (the old ones directed by George Lucas) and eat at The Keg, his favorite Benkleman restaurant.

Sven’s friends will still cluster around him in the hallways between periods, only now they’ll share their good times and make their memories face-to-face. There’s just something infectious about the kid’s spirit. Something so incredibly unshakeable.

“He’s a special kid,” said Anderson. “He’s surrounded by a special group of students who are very supportive, and they’ve learned how to be even more so.”

The image of Sven’s friends packed tight to get a glimpse of their classmate is one Anderson will never forget. It fills her with immense pride.

“Kids can be absolutely amazing,” she said.

Sven pictures his pals lifting the robot up in the air to avoid patches of troubling terrain and can’t help but to laugh.

“They carried me,” he said.

Little did he know, they were carrying each other.