There are a couple sentences you never, ever, want to hear. “You have cancer” is one of them.

One day in 2003, Vicki Heebner Carle heard that sentence.

This Three Forks native is famous for her solid athletic resume, for all the graceful, magic moments her athletic body managed over the years. Now, that same athletic body was threatening to turn on her.

Fast forward 19 years. She’s no longer famous for just her athletic exploits. Her life has a new chapter, the story of how she took that could-have-been deadly cancer diagnosis and turned it on its head.

“My priorities changed,” she said in a recent interview with the Belgrade News.

That health scare segued into a way to help other people. Total strangers would have their lives changed when she started Pack the Place in Pink, a Montana cancer nonprofit. Over the years, it has raised $680,000 and helped hundreds of Montana cancer survivors.

Montana sports fans know the name Vicki Heebner Carle. That’s because after 44 years, she’s still in the record books.

In 1978 and 1979, the Three Forks Wolves took the Class B State Championship; she was MVP twice and made All-State twice. Last year she was ranked No. 7 in a MTN News Montana sports poll of the all-time Top 50 Montana girls in high school basketball, and No. 10 by a different 406mtsports.com poll. She led the Wolves to a 50-game win streak from 1977-79. In the championship 1979 Class B game she scored 42 points in a 57-52 win over Chester, a girls championship state record. She won the Class B State javelin title her junior and senior years. She’s in the Montana High School Association Athletes’ Hall of Fame. And she holds the Three Forks career scoring record (boys and girls). After all these years, at Montana State University she is still ranked No. 1 in field goals, and No. 4 in career points per game (15.5), even though she played there from 1980-84.

One can only wonder what she might have accomplished had there been a three-point line back then and if the rest of the Lady Bobcats hadn’t put up such mediocre numbers during her tenure, including a 51-55 overall record, and 10 losses to the Lady Griz. She left MSU as the third leading career scorer. She was inducted as the first female athlete into the MSU Hall of Fame in 1996.

She would marry Mike Carle, an MSU football player from Butte. (“We kept things within the Bobcat family. No Grizzlies.”) After briefly teaching in Conrad and Vancouver, Wash., they moved to Billings, and she became a standout volleyball coach at Billings Skyview. Her teams posted almost 500 wins in her 28 years as a coach. Her team took the only Class AA State Championship in program history in 1996.

So. She has a solid gold athletic reputation. And then ...

In April 2003, in her 40s, Carle was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Your world is turned upside down,” she shared recently. “My kids were 2 and 7. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t die; my boys need me.’”

The day after her successful cancer surgery was Good Friday. “Around our house we call it Great Friday,” she said in an earlier interview.

In a few years she would have a recurrence of her cancer, but she has now been cancer-free for years.

Carle, now 60, would eventually start Pack the Place in Pink, a sports event nonprofit that has raised more than $680,000 to specifically help Montanans with breast cancer.

“The main thing about us is that we are all volunteers. And we give to Montanans,” she said.

It took her a few years to get from health scare to successful nonprofit.

It was 2008, she told the Belgrade News. “My mom and dad Jack and Arlene Heebner were in Billings. I was the volleyball coach at Skyview, and the team wanted to do something for me. So we got all this money, selling root beer floats, raffles. And I had all this money sitting on the dining room table. My mom tells me this story of a woman in Three Forks who has cancer, is having trouble paying her bills. I grab some money off the table, tell her to go to the bank and get some $100 bills, and give it to her.”

That was all it took, this serendipitous beginning of a Montana cancer charity. And the very first person this Three Forks sports legend helped was another Three Forks resident. In 2007 she had named what she was doing “Pack the Place in Pink.” It has a simple business plan – statewide sporting events donate proceeds from a designated event to PPP. Then, PPP gives it away to cancer survivors.

A handful of Gallatin Valley and Montana events in the next few months will be sponsoring PPP events:

The Cottonwood Hills Gold Course at Four Corners is sponsoring a June 24 PPP tourney; Bozeman’s MAP Brewing is having PPP Pink Night every Monday in June; there’s a PPP July 27 golf tourney at the Lake Hills Golf Course in Billings; on Sept. 29 in Lewistown, the Chokecherry Run is now partnering with PPP as a pink/chokecherry mash-up; a local Drink for Pink event with Bozeman breweries; an October silent auction on the Pink Facebook page (“and we are always looking for items”); and a Oct. 22 PPP event at MSU.

For more information on the June 24 golf event at Cottonwood Hills, call Lauren at (406) 350-1724 for more details.

“We’ve got a couple (charity) games in February, and we’re always looking for more,” Carle added. “We’re a charity; give to us and you get a tax break,” she joked.

Pack the Place in Pink gives “Pink Hugs,” which is what the organizations call their assistance. “We’ll help the same person twice, two pink hugs each.” Carle explained, “And we give cash. Use it for whatever you need.”

If you or someone you know is undergoing breast cancer treatments, you can fill out the referral form on packtheplaceinpink.org on the “request assistance” page.

You really can use the money for whatever you need, Carle emphasized. “I got a thank-you note from a woman,” Carle shared, “who told me that she bought two wigs, a guitar and a puppy. And I thought, God Bless you, lady.

“Everyone involved in this can tell a story. I got a (referral) name in the Albertson’s parking lot one day. It’s very endearing; very Montanan. It’s the ultimate team sport.”

So far, PPP has helped 650 Montanans, including a handful of men. “Yes, men get breast cancer,” Carle added. “And we help them. All our Montana breast cancer warriors. Every year is different. We want to make more money, to get our name out there, to do more.

“Three Forks is quite involved,” Carle continued. “Like everyone, we lost two years to COVID, but now everything is back online. It truly brings out the best in people. The kindness. People say, ‘We’ve heard what you did and we want to help. I have people call me (who got a check from us). ‘Is this real?’ Yep. Take it to the bank.”

Lewistown has “Pack the Race in Pink”; and other events have lent their twist to the name. “Pack the Diamond (baseball) in Pink”; and some breweries sponsor “Drink Pink.” Various fishing events want to help, she added, “but I can’t think what we’d call it,” she laughed.

Pack the Bait Bucket in Pink? Pack the Tackle Box in Pink? Pack the Boat in Pink? Pack the River in Pink?

And don’t forget the T-shirts. “I just ordered 7,000 more pink T-shirts,’ Carle said. “And we’re looking for corporate sponsors. $2,000 for corporate sponsors to have their name on the back of our T-shirts. $500 to have sponsorship name listed. There are lots of ways to donate. We’re getting on PayPal and getting QR codes, so you can donate on your phone.”

In 2019 after 28 years, Carle retired as the head volleyball coach at Billing’s Skyview High.

“What are the highlights of my life?” she mused. “Different now, than when I was playing ball. I will always be grateful to my Three Forks connections and my friends. I got to grow up there and get my education. I’m in the MHSA Hall of Fame and an All-American.

“Now I look through different goggles. It’s different now than it was then. I will always be loyal to (Skyview) royal. I will always be a Bobcat. And I will always be a Three Forks Wolf. I love Three Forks, and I’ve got several ‘homes’ now. My glass is half full wherever I lay my head at night.”

Her father Jack, a well-loved Three Forks High coach, teacher and principal, died in 2018. Her mother Arlene has moved to Bozeman.

“No family still in Three Forks,” Carle said, “but I still have our house.”

“This Pink ‘thing’ brings out the best in people. It’s so empowering, the friendships we’ve made. How it empowers people to help your fellow person, your fellow Montanan.

“I’m tooting my pink horn.”

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