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Northport HS group vies to win $1 million for ALS effort

Inspired by two district teachers diagnosed with the same terminal disease, students at Northport High School six years ago launched a fundraising effort that has raised more than $1 million for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The club of 42 students was recently awarded $25,000 after being selected as a finalist in the Chase Community Giving project, a grassroots campaign developed by JPMorgan Chase & Co., and is now in the running to win $1 million for its cause.

"Everything that is done with this organization is with the students and that is what makes it so special," said Don Strasser, the club's director and a Northport High chemistry teacher.

The group's main fundraiser, called A Midwinter Night's Dream, will be held Jan. 7 at Oheka Castle. The students are involved in every aspect of the black-tie gala, from cold-calling corporate sponsors to getting together the table cards.

The goal is to raise $345,000 for ALS research and families. The event usually draws 500 guests.

But the club's efforts extend beyond the formal night out. In June, Stony Brook University Medical Center opened A Midwinter Night's Dream Cryopreservation Laboratory with funding from a $125,000 endowment from the Northport students.

Northport senior Jen Koniuk, 17, is one of a handful of students who spent six weeks this summer researching ALS. Koniuk studied at The Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins University.

Being in the group "has changed my life in a magnitude of ways, which is amazing," Koniuk said.

The group was formed after Christopher Pendergast, an elementary schoolteacher at Dickinson Avenue; and David Deutsch, a biology, earth science and marine science teacher at the high school, were diagnosed with ALS.

Pendergast, 60, said in an e-mail: "A teacher normally toils to develop the intellectual skills of students hoping for their academic success. When that success comes in a way which benefits you directly and in such a personal way, you realize how lucky you are to be a teacher."

Students also do home visits with ALS patients on Long Island and Queens.

Earlier this month, the group was selected as one of 100 finalists in the Chase Community Giving contest, which enlisted Facebook users to vote for small and local nonprofits nationwide. The finalists now advance to round two, where Facebook users will again be able to vote starting Jan. 15.

The eligible organization receiving the most votes and meeting program requirements will earn a $1 million grant from Chase. Five additional charities will receive $100,000 grants toward their causes.

Strasser thinks his Northport students have a shot. "In this tough economy, we are still thriving, which is pretty successful for a bunch of kids," he said.

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