The hardship of a well-loved former Central High School football coach has inspired two teens to raise money and awareness for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as he battles Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In 2011, at only 35 years of age, Justin Garza was diagnosed with the disease that affects the body’s ability to fight infections. A bone marrow transplant in 2014 gave the husband and father of two hope. However, his cancer returned in December 2016.
Lauren Lake and Maddie Robinson, both 17 and seniors at Central, say Garza’s positivity has stuck with them. They’ve been nominated to campaign for the LLS’ Students of the Year award while setting a goal of raising $50,000.
“He’s awesome,” Lake said. “He’s turned something that is construed as negative into something positive.”
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Lake said students showed him love when they found out about his illness. On days he felt healthy, he visited.
“You would see football players sprint to the office to see him,” she said.
Garza also has inspired the Central community to give a helping hand. Various Central Unified employees have contributed a large number of sick leave, allowing him to remain on paid leave.
LLS helps to find cures for blood cancers and provide aid to patients and their families. According to LLS, more than 171,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma last year.
The organization’s Student of the Year campaign gives teens the chance to win college scholarships through fundraising and awareness activities. Each participant who reaches the minimum fundraising requirement of $10,000 will receive a $1,000 scholarship.
The girls were faced with an opportunity to help a good cause and assist financing their educations.
“How could you not give back to such a great cause?” Lake said.
The teens started their seven-week journey in mid-January. They are competing against 12 other local high school students and 74 LLS chapter participants. The student, or team, who raises the most amount of money wins a scholarship.
Lake and Robinson have organized several events, even collaborating with Buffalo Wild Wings and Dutch Bros. Recently, they teamed up with their school and formed a “Battle of the Sexes, Battle Cancer Together” competition. The weeklong event was used to spread awareness of the cancerous disease. Along with fun activities, such as themed dress-up days, the students accepted donations.
“Every dollar makes a difference,” Robinson said.
On Friday, the final day of the event, two cancer survivors spoke at a rally at the high school. In the background, on a board, blood paper donations were posted. Robinson said they wanted students to hear why the cause is important and where their money was going.
Advocating for this cause is more than just a project for these teens: “It’s something near and dear to my heart,” said Robinson.
Cancer runs in her family. What she remembers most is being in the eighth grade and finding out her grandmother had thyroid cancer. “She got her thryoid removed and now she’s doing well,” she said.
Lake said her grandmother had cancer, too. She was about 10 years old when her grandmother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. “They took out the tumor, and thought everything was great, but then they found a spot on her lung,” she said. However, today her grandmother is almost seven years cancer free.
So far Lake and Robinson have raised more than $10,000 – and they’re not done.
Their next event will be March 4 at the Chipotle near Shaw and Blythe avenues. From 5 to 9 p.m., customers can mention the cause and 50 percent of the proceeds will go toward their foundation. They’ve also created a Twitter account to spread the word about upcoming events.
The girls said they are not looking to be recognized as Students of the Year. The goal is to spread awareness. Robinson said they want “to make a difference of the year.”
Lake chimed in and said she wants people to realize the impact they can provide by donating or spreading the message. “They can change everything,” she said.
Neither has decided on a college yet, but they have chosen a career path: Robinson plans to major in broadcast journalism and Lake wants to study occupational therapy.
To donate, go to http://events.lls.org/pages/cca/eventDetails/llakei.