It’s a hoax that could happen in any number of small towns across the country. A woman, for reasons that no one can completely understand, invents a little boy struggling with leukemia. She tells friends and neighbors about this poor child who might be gone from the world all too soon. And, like decent people do, a community rallies around this case in hopes of helping a child and a family. They don’t ask for proof or verification. They don’t realize that the whole thing is a lie.
This is what happened to a small town in Colorado called Gypsum. Here, a 22-year-old woman named Briana Augustenborg concocted the story of a 9-year-old little boy named Alex Jordan. She said the boy had moved to the town in the past couple years, and even though he was losing his second battle with cancer, he just loved the local high school football team. Augustenborg told her story to the parent of a football player, and the whole thing spiraled from there.
Soon, a Facebook page was made to support the little boy. Local news and radio were reporting on the story. The players were wearing a letter ‘A’ on their helmets and signing footballs and jerseys for the imaginary fan. The story grew and grew until apparently Augustenborg couldn’t maintain it anymore. She posted a message on the Facebook page announcing that her fictional little Alex Jordan had passed away. An obituary even made it to the newspaper.
There’s no way to understand Augustenborg’s motivation. One thing is for sure, she isn’t alone. These lies have cropped up in towns around the country. My own community recently went through a cancer hoax. The woman even shaved her head to “Look the part” and collected thousands of dollars from her fellow citizens who were trying to help out. That woman, April Landis, was pulling the scam to make money and will serve two years in prison for her trouble. Augustenborg, for her part, never tried to profit off of her story.
After discovering the truth about these hoaxes, it’s easy to become bitter and angry. I can understand the Colorado football coach who said afterward, “I should’ve looked into it deeper.” He said he hoped to get his team’s signed football back so that it could serve as a reminder “to be a little bit more careful.” I understand why this coach wants to be more hesitant in the future, but I also hope that over time, he forgets that anxiety.
I’m truly blessed in that I’ve had very few family members battle cancer in my lifetime. I haven’t personally had to go to my community and ask them for support fighting a horrible, life-threatening disease. However, I have gone to benefits supporting co-workers with cancer. I’ve been there, hugging their families, buying things I don’t necessarily need from a silent auction because I know the money goes to a good place. I’ve been at the receiving end of those email and Facebook updates, rejoicing when another round of radiation is over and weeping when things aren’t going well. I’ve lost a very dear friend and co-worker at the end of that battle.
The way that people come together to support those in their community during their darkest hours is one of the reasons that I love living in a small city. The idea that we’re all here together, helping the families around us, is such an amazing comfort. We shouldn’t allow these charlatans to bring doubt and skepticism into those relationships. Even after someone does something horrible, even after a woman in our community abuses that bond and takes advantage of us, I hope that we can still open up our hearts and occasionally our wallets those around us who need it.
I feel horrible for the people of Gysum, Colorado. I can understand their anger and disillusionment. But I hope that if another sad story comes along, they won’t approach it with doubt. I hope they come together, just like they did around an imaginary 9-year-old boy. This story says a lot more about that community and it’s spirit than it does about a single person who would abuse such a bond.