By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
More than 100 college students from 80 different campuses around the country converged in Boca Raton last month with one common goal—learning how they can sign up as many of their peers on a registry to donate bone marrow or stem cells to fight blood cancers and other illnesses.
Boca-based nonprofit Gift of Lift brought the Campus Ambassadors to the Boca Raton Marriott for a four-day symposium where the ambassadors received a crash course on how to spread the word and get college-aged students to sign up for the registry.
Gift of Lift, which began as a grassroots initiative in 1991, created its Campus Ambassadors Program, known as CAP, four years ago.
Some ambassadors have experienced transplants and cancer with family members. Others needed experience in the health field. Some just wanted a way to get involved in an organization.
Director of Community Engagement for Gift of Life Marti Freund said the ideal donor is a college-aged student between 18-25. She said the program was created as a way for students to recruit their peers to join the registry.
She said 21 transplants have been a result of the CAP program and three ambassadors have participated as donors themselves.
Gift of Life started when its now CEO Jay Feinberg was 22 and battling leukemia. He needed to find a matching donor for a bone marrow transplant in order to save his life.
His family hosted drives all over the world. The last person swabbed at the last drive was the one that turned up a match. From then on, he made it his life’s mission to help others.
Gift of Life has more than 270,000 donors on its registry and has helped facilitate transplants for more than 3,000 people. It has hosted nearly 11,000 drives and come up with 14,000 matches for donations.
Joining the registry is as simple as swabbing the inside of your cheek. That is then processed by Gift of Life and entered into the registry. It cost $60 to process a kit.
During the symposium, ambassadors heard from a donor, a recipient and the director of fundraising.
Panelist Matt Hocherman said he went to an event and swabbed after he heard of a community member who needed a transplant. He said he will never forget the day his phone rang last March and it was Gift of Life on the other end.
“It was a Friday afternoon,” he said. “They said you are a potential match. My heart skipped a beat.”
He was sent another kit to confirm he was a match and once it was re-confirmed, he said he was on board to help.
“It’s like giving blood for four to five hours,” he said of the process of donating peripheral blood stem cells. “This process changed my life drastically. I want to give back in any way I can.”
All he knows about his patient is that he is 71 and battling leukemia. Gift of Life recipients and their donors are kept anonymous from each other until a full year after the transplant.
That year waiting period was up for recipient and panelist Sandy Singer. He met his donor during the symposium.
“I can’t wait to see the person who has given me a new life,” he said before the reveal.
He said his biggest wish after the transplant was to be able to return to work.
“I pictured myself walking through that door,” he said, adding that when he did return to work it felt great.
“I felt like a million bucks,” he said after the procedure. “I was energetic. Going back was great. I hope I have many years of work in front of me.”
He said he owes that all to Gift of Life.
“The rest of my life will be devoted to these folks,” he said. “I see a huge family that I am absolutely in love with.”
In order to give people a chance to beat their illnesses, the organization must raise money to process the kits.
That is where Dana Aberman shines by organizing fundraisers.
“We had this little for what we then called a walk,” she said of the first event. “The first year we couldn’t even afford a tent.”
That year she and her team of 250 volunteers helped raise $60,000. Last year, she said the efforts raised more than $100,000.
“What you do is the beginning of the process of saving people’s lives,” she told the ambassadors. “Every single one of you can be a hero. Every single one of you can save a life.”
For more information on Gift of Life, visit giftoflife.org