South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South County teens raise thousands of dollars for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

Local students excel in raising funds, awareness

Since its founding in 2017, hundreds of students nationwide each year have participated in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s seven-week philanthropic leadership development program and competition, Student Visionaries of the Year. This year, three South County students – Cor Jesu Academy’s Faith Rodriguez, Oakville High School’s Macey Walton and Mehlville High School’s Amy Escamilla – got involved, each leading their teams to raise thousands of dollars for the fantastic cause.

Though the competition is technically national, students first compete locally in groups of five to 50 people. At the end of the seven weeks, the leader – or candidate – of the student team that raised the most money is named “Student Visionary of the Year” of their specific local chapter. The winners of each chapter are then compared, and the candidate who raised the most money nationwide is named the national winner.

To raise money, the candidates set up business meetings and present to corporate sponsors in the hopes that they will sponsor their team and/or donate to the cause. Candidates and their team members also write and send ‘personal asks’ to individuals for support.

“I was asking anyone and everyone I knew,” Rodriguez said of the personal asks. “Some of the people on my team were like, ‘I’m not asking people for money like that,’ and I was like, ‘I know it’s kind of awkward, but you have to realize we’re doing it for a good reason, for a good cause. You’re not asking them to pay for your Starbucks. You’re asking them to pay for someone’s life. You’re asking them to sign on to something that’s good.’”

At the beginning of the competition, each candidate is tasked with picking one of the organization’s three mission pillars to focus on — offering free patient education and support, pushing for change through policy and advocacy and driving lifesaving research. At the end of the competition, the money they raise is donated to the pillar of their choosing.

To participate in the program, candidates can either be nominated by a community member or apply themselves.

“We know that our community leaders know our communities the best, and in fact, probably know the students that have the caliber of succeeding in this program, so we take community nominations very seriously. (They) are oftentimes our No. 1 prospects,” Austin McKain, campaign development manager for the program, said. “What we’re looking for is students that understand some of the intangibles that you can’t teach. Like, are they empathetic? Do they want to be helpful and charitable?”

“I’m also looking for somebody that has a little bit of that personal influence, like, are they somebody that other people look to? Are they a leader in their community? On their sports teams? In their school?” He continued. “And then also, I think, really, the last piece here is: Are they willing to embrace something different and willing to accept the fact that they’re willing to be vulnerable and learn new skills?”

Hundreds of prospective students applied or were nominated in the St. Louis market alone this year. Twenty-four students were extended an invitation, 20 accepted, seven backed out before the campaign started and two backed out after the campaign began. On March 9, 11 teams completed the program, and in the end, Rodriguez’s team, Charging to a Cure, took the crown, raising $87,720. In total, all of the St. Louis teams combined raised $334,373.

“It was a great learning experience. I learned so, so much, and now to be able to say l won –  it just feels good,” Rodriguez said.

Nominated by her uncle, this cause is near and dear to her heart.

“My great aunt had CLL – cystic lymphoblastic leukemia – and she was diagnosed back in 2010. Just recently she was cleared and it’s gonna be in maintenance for the next few years, but she’s battled it for now 14 years, and I’ve watched her suffer and champion this disease,”  Rodriguez said.

Team Charging to a Cure was the largest in the St. Louis competition, with over 50 members. They chose patient support as their pillar. In addition to Rodriguez winning the title of “Student Visionary of the Year,” her whole team was awarded the Mission Pillar award for going above and beyond.

“Our Honored Hero of the Year, Mackenzie, who’s four, has acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She had just finished her first week back at school after being sick for most of the school year, so we got to celebrate with her at Sweet and Sassy and take her out for a day at the spa,” Rodriguez said. “It was my favorite thing that we did, it was so fun. We got to dance on their stage and she got her nails done and all that fun jazz.”

“The whole time when we were working, I was always thinking, ‘how can I be connected with the people that I’m serving?’ That’s something that’s always been close to me. I want to see the people that I’m impacting, and I want to see their faces and put names on top of that face, too,” she added.

Rodriguez is no stranger to service. In 2018, her family started doing foster care, inspiring her to start her own foster care nonprofit, MERAKI-STL.

“(We make) t-shirts and sweatshirts, and then we write a check to the Foster Care Coalition for St. Louis,” Rodriguez said.
“Then my friends and I will host a free day camp for kids in foster care. So we’ll use a chunk of what we get from the t-shirts and sweatshirts, and we’ll just use it for getting a fun day set up for kids that are in care so that they can just come, have fun, be free, feel loved and supported while they’re with us. And they get to meet other kids in the same situation as they are; it’s really cool to see.”

She also visits Nicaragua every summer to build water systems.

“That’s like the highlight of my year, every year. I love doing that and I love doing things that are serving. I plan on going to college to do more service. Service is ingrained in my family and how we work. So yeah, that’s something I’ve definitely learned from my parents,”  Rodriguez said.

Other schools from the area represented in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Student Visionaries of the Year competition include Francis Howell, Edwardsville in Illinois, Chaminade, Cor Jesu, Thomas Jefferson, Marquette, Priory, Vianney, Mehlville, Oakville, and Lee’s Summit in Kansas. 

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