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Fundraising for cancer research

Childhood friends are ‘Students of the Year’

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Most people know someone who has been affected by cancer. Among a group of childhood friends from Wantagh, everyone has at least one family member who either overcame or succumbed to the illness. And the group saw a friend survive leukemia when they all attended Wantagh Elementary School.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the friends formed Warriors for a Cure, a fundraising team whose members were named the 2021 Students of the Year by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

The Wantagh students were one of 26 teams, comprising 600 students, across Long Island that competed in a seven-week philanthropic leadership and development program to help the LLS in its mission to support those affected by blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. Warriors for a Cure was honored for raising the most money of any team —$110,511.

“I’m really proud of us and everything we did for the community and for people fighting blood cancer,” said Haley Leimbach, a junior at Wantagh High School.

Leimbach is one of the team’s three leaders, along with Ashley Reisert, a junior at Sacred Heart Academy, and Nicholas Bifone, a junior at Chaminade High School. A Reisert family friend, who works at the LLS, nominated her for the fundraising competition, and she jumped at the opportunity.

The three teens recruited a team of their friends, which they named Warriors for a Cure after the Wantagh High nickname. They kicked off their efforts on Jan. 29, with all 15 team members creating contact list of about 100 people to reach out to for donations each week.

They also contacted about 30 businesses to ask for donated gift cards or other items for raffles. They secured donations from Umberto’s Pizzeria, Burrito Mariachi, DJ’s Clam Shack, Craft Taphouse, Corey’s Ale House, Starbucks and JM Fitness. They also put donation jars at Half-Off Cards, Dunkin’ Donuts, Phil’s Pizzeria, Umberto’s and Lifestyle Sports.

Team leaders hosted a raffle at the Race Awesome Polar Pursuit 5K last month at Eisenhower Park, and the grand prize was a Peloton bike. Warriors for a Cure also hosted two rounds of Super Bowl box betting pools; virtual cooking, yoga, cycling and ballet classes; clothing drives; and fundraising nights at Panera Bread, Smashburger and Chipotle.

They also secured a corporate sponsorship from American Regent, a pharmaceutical company that donated $15,000 to the fundraiser.

“I learned that there are so many people who are willing to help,” Leimbach said. “Everyone was really supportive and wanted to contribute in any way they could.”

This was the first time Leimbach, Reisert and Bifone had led a fundraising project. Leimbach and Reisert are both familiar with philanthropy through projects they do as members of Wantagh Girl Scout Troop 3369. Reisert is also a member of the Sacred Heart Key Club, and often takes part in its community service events.

What motivated them even more was working on the team with their childhood friend who overcame leukemia. “It was just amazing to have her on our team, and she worked incredibly hard,” Reisert said. “She continued to inspire us and motivate us to keep moving forward so other kids could beat cancer and be with their friends.”

While they were raising money for the LLS, team members learned more about what it does and what the donations will fund. Reisert said she didn’t know that children with cancer are treated with the same medications and procedures as adults, but with smaller doses. One of the LLS’s goals is to provide more suitable pediatric treatments that won’t expose children to the potential harmful side affects of medication intended for adults.

Bifone and Leimbach said they didn’t know that the LLS funded the creation of 50 of the 60 FDA-approved drugs used to treat blood cancers, and that its efforts support people with any kind of cancer. 

This hit close to home for Leimbach, whose mother and grandmother are both breast cancer survivors. “I’m helping an organization that could be the reason they won their fight against cancer,” she said, “and I want to do that in any way possible.”