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How local high school students raised more than $70,000 to fight cancer

When the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society was considering a new fundraising concept in 2017, it bounced the idea off of people in Western New York philanthropic circles: How about high school students?

"We were kind of told we were crazy," said Michael Crisona, executive director of the society's Western New York chapter. "We were told no student in Buffalo would raise more than $2,500."

LLS went ahead with the campaign, and Western New York high school students ended up doing something "crazy," all right.

A Canisius senior and Buffalo Seminary freshman raised just over $40,000 this year. Three Williamsville East sophomores raised about $31,000. In all, a group of 20 Western New York high school students raised more than $150,000 in the 2019 LLS "Students of the Year" program, bringing the two-year local total to more than $225,000.

"People surprised us," said Williamsville East sophomore Brooke Horn, "and we surprised ourselves."

Students raised money through chocolate bars, burritos, wristbands, spaghetti dinners and dress-down days. They solicited donations through pitch meetings, presentations, letters, emails, text messages and social media. They cultivated connections, capitalized on relationships, networked. They coordinated it all by managing projects, wrestling with logistics and leading teams.

In effect, the students ran their own nonprofit businesses for several months in a program that is part competition, part fundraiser, part community service project. While their mission was to raise money for a good cause, the experience gave students something in return.

The Williamsville East sophomore trio of Avantika Sridhar and twin sisters Ava and Brooke Horn called their effort "In It to End It," which was partly inspired by classmate Jacob Ward, who fell ill last year to Hodgkin's lymphoma. The girls said they were taken aback by the generosity of family, friends, schoolmates and strangers.

"Now we know what we can do," Brooke said. "We didn’t know exactly what we were signing up for."

What they were signing up for was a program that seeks serious candidates (honor students), sets serious goals (usually at least $20,000) and provides serious support (a full-time LLS employee to advise students). Teams embark on the challenge in the fall and plan their strategies as they build to a seven-week fundraising period from February to April.

"A perennial thing nonprofits have tried to do is crack the code on how do we get students to fundraise," Crisona said. "We’ve sort of cracked the code."

'We need to participate'

The Williamsville East sophomore trio members are all in Leadership Buffalo's Youth Leadership program, which is how they were exposed to the the LLS Students of the Year program. Local campaign manager Amanda Harwell, a full-time LLS employee, stopped by their meeting to explain what went into the program.

"Right away we were like, 'We need to participate,' " said Avantika.

The three musically inclined students – the twins both play the trombone, while Avantika sings and dances – were thinking of Ward, another talented trombone player.

"The three of us immediately decided that we wanted to do it … because we had recently found out that Jacob had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He’s a really big part of the music wing. It hit home."

The group was enthusiastic, even when learning of the $20,000 goal and the "stretch" goal of $30,000.

"Did we think we could reach our stretch goal?" Ava recalled. "No way!"

From left, Ava Horn, Avantika Sridhar and Brooke Horn.(Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The girls, like all those in the program, built and led teams of fundraisers. One of the East girls' teammates was Ward, who raised about $850 through his own web page. Direct online donations, spurred on by the team's use of social media and targeted letters and emails, accounted for more than two-thirds of the girls' total.

A meeting at Rich Products – where the Horns' mother works – yielded $1,000, which the girls referred to as "seed money." Those funds went toward what would be a $2,000 chocolate bar venture through Buffalo's Choco Logo, which designed personalized, discounted bars that the girls sold for $3, with half of that going to Choco Logo.

They sold the bars at multiple locations, but each sale visit had to be accompanied by phone calls to request permission, working out scheduling details with the site, their teammates along with transportation. And despite a detailed plan, they often had to adjust.

"There were so many unexpected challenges and we just had to ... pivot; you had to roll with it," Brooke said. "And you can’t leave everything 'til the last minute. That’s such a big thing that we as high schoolers really struggle with. It’s just amazing that high schoolers got to deal with this."

On a trip to Atlanta, Avantika did a presentation to two Rotary Clubs where her aunt and uncle are members, and she raised $500. The three did presentations at meetings of Kaveri Sangam, the Southeast Indian Society of Western New York, of which Avantika's mom is a member.

And there were more challenging locales. On a cold, snowy Saturday in March, the trio was huddled together at a table in the parking lot of Walmart.

"Sometimes you would be a little discouraged, but it was amazing seeing the people who would stop," Brooke said. "That experience taught us how many people are really affected by the cause – a woman came by and said her son had just passed away days ago from lymphoma."

"Jacob, and those people we met at Walmart, and that lady who lost her son, and what she might be going through," Ava said, "all of that was driving us to raise more and more money."

'Team Brain Power' of Elmwood Franklin roots

Lauren Levy (Buffalo Seminary freshman) and Gianni Siddiqui (Canisius High School senior) raised more than $40,000 as part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Students of the Year program. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Lauren Levy and Gianni Siddiqui are both graduates of Elmwood Franklin School, and Head of School Andrew Deyell encouraged them to take part. The school and its network became a big part of the success of their team – dubbed "Team Brain Power" because both have parents who are neurosurgeons.

As was the case with the Williamsville East trio, most of their fundraising came online. The team was able to branch out its network as different Elmwood Franklin alumni and parents tried to raise funds via their respective high schools.

"Our team was a big part of it," said Siddiqui, who will attend George Washington University this fall. "Our team was mostly comprised of our friends and parents, and they reached out to colleagues. It was a big operation. It was a lot of fun."

Team Brain Power set a goal of $25,000. It raised $11,000 in its first eight days thanks to several large donations that team members had set up before the fundraising period began.

"After the first week, we got a lot of money," Levy said, "and it was like 'Wow, what now?' "

The team added different types of fundraisers. Dress-down days at each high school brought in additional funds, with Canisius' $2,000 leading the way. A Chipotle fundraiser added some more. Like the Williamsville team, they were able to secure a campaign-concluding sponsorship in excess of $2,000.

The benefits of networking weren't always monetary. Gianni was able to connect with a fundraising expert at a local healthcare firm, which turned into an hourlong phone conversation about methods and approaches.

"We don’t know how to ask people for money," Levy said. "It was kinda weird if you’re a young person and you are asking them to invest into a program that they don't really know about. They would be, 'Is it a five-bucks thing or is it like a serious event?' And we're like, 'It’s $1,000.' So it's how you ask it and how you get them to take it seriously."

Lauren Levy and Gianni Siddiqui. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

And efforts that didn't always yield results, like when Gianni worked on connecting with a local bank to no avail.

"It wasn't all success. There were definitely a lot of people who were like, 'No thanks.' "

"It’s a lot of responsibility, too," Lauren said. "All the planning, making sure everything is in order, making sure everything was in by a certain date, checking our email every hour. ... It took a lot of responsibility."

"That’s what we love about this," said Crisona. "You don’t get that from going to a 5K with your softball team and getting a water bottle and a T-shirt. That's great, but there’s just so much more that you’re getting out of this."

Last year's debut of the Students of the Year program in the Buffalo area saw nine students participate, collectively raising more than $76,000. The continued success has LLS looking into expanded goals and an expanded program, as it is hiring another full-time facilitator to start a program in the Rochester area.

"At the grand finale," Crisona said, referring to the program-concluding event, which includes silent auctions and is the teams' final chance to fundraise, "I always like talking to parents, because the same line is said over and over again:

"'I loved watching my child go through this process and grow from it.' "

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