Casey Roszko remembers the pain endured by her best friend, Maddie Girard, as she battled Hodgkin's lymphoma eight years ago. The countless nights in Maddie’s room at Winthrop Hospital as the fourth-graders played dress-up and watched videos. And the six rounds of chemotherapy that drained her friend’s appetite and energy.
The experience solidified the girls' friendship and fortified their desire to find a cure for all forms of blood cancers.
As juniors at Manhasset High School last year, Roszko and Girard banded together again for a seven-week fundraising campaign, raising $118,000 for the Long Island chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and winning the 2018 Students of the Year award.
“It made me happy to do something good for my friend and for everyone out there who is going through this because I saw firsthand exactly what happens,” said Roszko, 18, of Manhasset, who will attend Drexel University in the fall and plans to pursue a career as a professional fundraiser. “I want to raise as much money as I can so it’s curable and we can make a difference.”
Girard, who is now cancer free, said she was inspired by the opportunity to help those battling the odds to overcome the potentially deadly disease.
“It’s great way to give something back,” said Girard, 18, of Manhasset, who is set to attend Penn State University in the fall. “It’s such a great cause.”
Student of the Year is a national leadership program where high school students form teams to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society while developing entrepreneurship, marketing and volunteerism skills. The top award goes to the team that raises the most money during the seven-week competition.
Funds raised from the campaign are used to help find a cure, and to ensure access to treatments for all blood cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia, myeloma and Hodgkin’s disease. The Long Island chapter also finances cancer research at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
“People feel helpless when they are diagnosed with cancer,” said Sara Lipsky, executive director of the Long Island LLS chapter. “Having students of this young of an age participate in this program is quite inspiring. Everybody has someone affected in some way by cancer.”
A team effort
Roszko and Girard formed a team of about 20 students in the winter of 2017. The group, named “For the Love of the Blood,” spent months brainstorming fundraising ideas and setting up websites on Facebook and Instagram to collect donations.
But the teens, who have active school and athletic schedules — Girard runs track and Roszko plays lacrosse — didn’t just pass around the hat seeking contributions.
The team hosted a dress drive, collecting about 500 new or hardly worn dresses or gowns. Roszko then created a pseudo-dress shop inside her home, where residents could purchase the items at a price tag of their choosing. The drive helped raise nearly $10,000.
The team’s entrepreneurial ideas ranged from the silly — collecting contributions from students to have a teacher of their choosing dress in an oversized bunny costume before Easter — to more traditional proposals. For example, they convinced three retailers at the Americana Manhasset to donate a percentage of their revenue on a certain day to the cause; held a silent auction with products and gift cards donated by local businesses; and sold ribbons in the colors commonly identified with blood cancer.
More than two-thirds of the team’s six-figure haul, Roszko said, was raised through an email and letter-writing campaign in which team members begged, pleaded, cajoled and lobbied their friends, family, teachers and co-workers for contributions.
Roszko said she worked off her family’s Christmas card list, securing contributions ranging from $20 to $2,500 from individuals — and often double that amount for companies with a matching gift program.
"She showed what true leadership looks like and learned along the way," Lipsky said. "Those are incredible skills to be carried over for the rest of her life. She set an unbelievable precedent … and she is having such a huge impact on patients and families here on Long Island."
Despite her age, Roszko said she was taken seriously — particularly once businesses realized the influence and reach of her social media pages.
“The biggest thing I learned is if you don’t ask you are not going to receive anything,” she said.
'It was a sign'
Sabrina Roszko said she's proud of the leadership skills exhibited by her daughter.
"Junior year is a tough year with the SATs and hard classes," Sabrina Roszko said. "And she ran though it. She managed her time and was a leader managing other kids. They all worked together as a team."
In 2019, just as Roszko was returning to compete in the campaign again — running a team with classmate Alexandra Falco — her grandfather, Eddy Roszko of Oakdale was diagnosed with lymphoma.
"It was a sign," Casey Roszko said of her grandfather, whose cancer is now in remission after six rounds of chemotherapy. "I knew I wanted to raise a lot of money."
Roszko's team raised more than $66,000 this year — a large haul but well short of a team from Jericho High School, which brought in $278,000, the highest amount of nearly 1,000 teams nationwide.
In total on Long Island, 11 teams of high schoolers combined to raise $347,000 in 2018 while 15 teams this year combined to raise $620,000.
As Roszko prepares for graduation on June 21, she offered advice for the teams that will follow in her footsteps.
"Go out of your way and do something good for someone else," she said. "It doesn’t have to be big. Anything you do can really help make a difference in someone’s life."