200 celebrate Ian Gunnell's birthday

Ian Gunnell and his mom Tanya at his birthday party, hosted at Vinland Elementary. The community has raised $117,000 for Ian
Ian Gunnell and his mom Tanya at his birthday party, hosted at Vinland Elementary. The community has raised $117,000 for Ian's cancer treatment.
— image credit: Johnny Walker / Correspondent

POULSBO — Like most children his age, 7-year-old Ian Gunnell celebrated his birthday at a party with family and friends.

Unlike most children, however, Ian needed his doctor’s permission to attend the party given in his honor March 16. Ian is being treated for a rare form of leukemia that was identified six months ago. At the party, he didn’t get to play much and he couldn’t stay long enough to open his presents. But at the carefully managed event at Vinland Elementary School, Ian’s gift of joy prevailed. Ian was 7 and nothing was going to get in the way of that.

In the company of about 200 parents and children throughout the event, Ian blew out his birthday candles, smiled and laughed to “Happy Birthday” as only a child could. According to his mother, Tanya, Ian had a rough start in life and has learned to keep his future in perspective.

“He knows. He is very aware,” Tanya Gunnell said, referring to his medical condition. “Ian is writing his own story and we’ll take every day that we can. It is hard, but the community has really helped us with that. We could not do this without them.”

The Gunnell family made a special trip from their temporary residence — a 15-minute drive from Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Ian is being treated — to attend the birthday party at Ian’s school. According to his mother, it was an exciting morning for Ian to have his birthday at home.

“I had my favorite breakfast,” Ian said, smiling. “Breakfast casserole — ham, eggs, cheese and hash browns. It was good.”

Reflecting on what was different about being 7, Ian sheepishly replied, “I’m older.”

Among the most fun things Ian remembers through the year were camping trips in Utah and playing with Legos. Least favorite memories included “squirty medicine” that tasted disgusting and “back pokes” that made him feel fuzzy.

Tanya Gunnell said of her son, “I have seen him be able to look within himself and give voice to how things impact his life in ways that others may not. He has become a very compassionate boy — not just from what he goes through but because of the compassion coming toward him and also because of the company he keeps.”

The birthday party was organized by PFM for Ian — PFM stands for Positive Fight Mode, the slogan Ian’s dad, Chris, came up with to motivate Ian’s circle of supporters in the hospital and in Kitsap County.

According to PFM spokeswoman Melisa Holmes, compassion for Ian and the Gunnell family has exceeded expectations. The original fundraising goal of $100,000 was met within five months, on Valentine’s Day. As of March 17, contributions neared $117,000 as supporters dined at a fundraising St. Ian’s Day dinner sponsored by Mor Mor Bistro & Bar in Poulsbo. Ongoing events are planned.

Learn more about Ian and upcoming events on the Positive Fight Mode website at


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