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Fighting cancer a nickel at a time

How many bottle and cans would it take to help pay the bills for a seriously ill cancer patient?

Nicolette Sepielli figured it would take 100,000 nickels -- and she could raise that amount by turning in 100,000 empty cans and bottles and collecting the 5-cent deposit on each one of them.

And then she could keep on collecting returnables and raise enough more money to buy a van to take cancer patients to their chemotherapy clinic -- or maybe to establish a college scholarship for cancer patients or survivors.

Since March 8, she has turned in more than 20,000 bottles and cans, raising more than $1,000.

She collected "well over 800" more -- more than $40 worth -- during the three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend. Her goal is to reach the $5,000 mark by Labor Day, Sept. 3.

Sepielli, a 19-year-old sophomore who is studying marketing at Niagara University, began her unusual fundraising campaign out of compassion for a cousin who was diagnosed two years ago with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.

"From all of the chemotherapy, radiation treatments and surgeries to remove the cancer, she began to suffer from other severe health complications," the young woman explained.

"My cousin was unable to work in the last two years, and I knew that her bills were growing at a rapid pace. I knew that I couldn't change her medical situation so I decided to help with her financial situation."

She called her crusade "Recycle for a Cause" and believed that it would be an effective fundraiser because it could be done with no cost to the contributor.

Her initial goal was to collect enough for a $50 grocery gift card -- 1,000 bottles or cans -- because she didn't believe she could collect much more than that. She posted the idea on her Facebook page, and positive feedback began coming in.

So did the donations.

"My small goal of $50 quickly turned into a $500 goal. Strangers encouraged me to keep this fund raiser going and try my very best because they knew how expensive medical treatments could be," she said. "They also knew how difficult it was to be very ill and still have to worry about financial expenses."

Counting up the hundreds of empty bottles and cans piled on the porch of her home on Moll Street in North Tonawanda one day last week, Sepielli said donations began streaming in "from North Tonawanda, Niagara Falls, Amherst, Wheatfield and everywhere, really." She will take them to a recycling center for a final accounting to collect the 5-cent deposit.

When she reached $1,000, Michael Freedman, assistant director of public relations at Niagara University, published an article about it on the university's website.

Sepielli also contacted a number of businesses that have contributed to "Recycle for a Cause." She said professors at Niagara "encouraged me to keep pushing forward and get this as big as I can get it. They kept reminding me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it."

She singled out her accounting professor, Christopher Aquino, as being especially supportive of her project.

According to Sepielli's web site, everything collected until Labor Day will be given to her cousin Michelle, of Niagara Falls. She asked that her last name not be published.

After that date, proceeds will be donated to a different cause.

"I would like to help Roswell Park Cancer Institute in some way," Sepielli said. "I would like to either donate a van to their van service for cancer patients going to the chemotherapy clinic, or I would like to raise money for college scholarships for cancer patients or survivors. I have so many ideas I would like to do; I would love to reach a larger audience. This fundraiser is helping me grow as a person and I would love to share my story with others."

Noting that she is studying for a degree in marketing, Sepielli remarked that "I already am doing marketing."