LAKEWOOD, Colo. -- Fourteen- year-old Dakota Kisling of Lakewood knew she wanted to pursue modeling after her mother purchased a life-changing Groupon.
“I started modeling when my mom got a Groupon for a photo shoot where they did your hair and make-up,” Dakota explains. “And that really, really inspired me and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is so fun.' I want to do this for like the rest of my life.”
After taking a few professional photos, Dakota was smitten with the world of modeling.
“Once I started taking pictures I just got comfortable and into the groove of things,” she says.
But life changed for Dakota weeks before her 14th birthday. Her mother, Donna Kisling, will never forget the date.
“She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in April, 12th of this year," Kisling says. "Her diagnosis came just before her birthday so that was kind of … that date will be permanently etched in our minds.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, also known as ALL, was initially a cause of worry for Dakota.
“When I found out I had cancer, I remember in the car, trying to like hide my hair and see what I would be like bald and stuff like that," she says. "And it scared me a little bit because ... I'm a teenager now, and there is a lot of pressure with, like, boys and stuff like that and just fitting in. Going into high school is not easy, let alone having no hair, is definitely not easy. But I felt like I've been blessed because now I have such a different perspective on life. And losing my hair is not as big as a problem with me."
Once she started thinking positively, Dakota says unexpected blessings came her way. “I started with the negatives and then I started realizing, everything started falling into place. I started seeing the bright side in everything.”
On one of Dakota’s “bad days,” she and her mother went to an Ulta beauty supply store where they ran into professional makeup artist, Kim Clay. When Clay heard Dakota’s story she knew she could help. Clay says of their meeting, “It was so meant to be.”
Clay, a member of Just Be Colorado, knew the organization’s upcoming benefit fashion show for cancer awareness would provide Dakota with an opportunity to pursue her modeling dream.
The mission of Just Be Colorado is to, “promote awareness and self-esteem and overall quality of life” of those affected by cancer, co-founder Lidia Zurek explains.
"We want them not to be defined by cancer but to be beautiful and you know as they are. So that's how we came up with Just Be,” she says.
“(Cancer patients) don't have to be defined by their diagnoses," Just Be Colorado’s creative director Giane Morris explains. "A lot of people get diagnosed with cancer and they're like 'I have cancer.' And they feel like they feel like that's all they are now, is a cancer patient. And that's not the case, which is clearly proven when you meet Dakota."
“I hope that she feels like she is the star because I feel like she is the star of the show”, explains Clay, who introduced Dakota to the group.
Dakota considered making walking on a runaway her big wish to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. However, Dakota submitted another wish to the foundation and was contemplating changing her wish.
When Clay found out Dakota wanted to change her wish, she said, “Do not change it!”
“I said, If you don't mind it being local, we can make this happen,” Clay says.
Dakota did not change her wish, and is both excited and nervous to walk the Just Be runway on Tuesday.
“This is pretty exciting for me because it's putting a face to cancer and I love the idea of the Just Be organization," she says. "But that obviously comes with some nerves. I've done like the class where you learn how to walk but that was like two years ago and honestly I don't remember anything. Hopefully I will do okay.”
Dakota’s mother, Donna, can barely contain her excitement.
“Oh I think it's just absolutely amazing that we ran into Kim," she says. "I mean, things happen for a reason. It's just -- it's just amazing.”
Dakota plans to use the runway to spread her message of hope.
“Cancer doesn't define me, but I think it's a part of me and it will always be a part of me and so I think yeah for sure I will incorporate that into my life," she says
However, she wants people to remember one truth.
“I still am Dakota. I am not the cancer girl. Cancer isn't who I am.”
The Just Be Fashion Show will be held on Tuesday, December 10 at the Mansion in Colorado Springs. Doors open at 6 p.m.
For more information on buying tickets visit: http://www.justbecolorado.org/contact.html