At age 8, Nicole Lawlor single-handedly raised $3,500 for a Relay for Life team that included her mother, Donna, a registered nurse who had a professional interest in helping those facing cancer.
Four years later, the issue became much more personal.
Nicole Lawlor was diagnosed at age 12 with non-sun-related melanoma, a type of genetically based cancer that is extremely rare in children.
"When I told her the news, she went up to her room and cried," her mother recalled. "Then she came back down and said, 'Mom, I think this is going to make me a better person.' "
Determined not to be discouraged by her diagnosis, this Hudson resident began a course of treatment and underwent surgery. As of this April, she has been declared cancer free.
In the meantime, this River Ridge High School senior, who graduated Friday night, has taken charge of the school's Relay for Life team. Since she started heading up her own school-based Relay teams in 2008, she has generated more than $12,000 for the American Cancer Society. She also was the Luminaria chairperson for this year's New Port Richey Relay for Life, which took place at Gulf High School.
"I never said, 'Why me?' when it came to cancer," said Lawlor, 17. "I said, 'Why not me?' That diagnosis was a blessing in disguise."
Lawlor felt that her illness opened her eyes to the suffering that cancer victims endure; and just as people around her reached out to help her during her time of need, she wanted to do the same for others.
"I was on the receiving end of so much kindness, it made me want to give back," she said. "I get more out of giving now."
As captain of the River Ridge High Relay for Life team, Lawlor has coordinated a number of fundraisers for her team, ranging from bake sales to peddling "Cancer Sucks" wrist bands, as well as other events such as chocolate tastings. And she has taken an active role in Relay events throughout the county.
"I speak at Relay kickoffs about my experiences," she said. "And I put together the entire luminaria ceremony at this year's New Port Richey Relay. It was a 45-minute service that featured speakers, a reading, a luminaria display, a slide show, and a lap of silence."
Lawlor has participated in other philanthropic efforts through her involvement in the River Ridge High chapters of the National Honor Society, the Future Business Leaders of America and the Interact Club. She has done everything from collecting canned foods and Christmas gifts for people in need to raising awareness about bullying among students.
"I always tried to teach her that it's not always about us, that there are always other people less fortunate," said her mother, Donna Lawlor. "Beyond what I taught her, the desire to help people is just in her. Even as a little kid, if she saw someone in need she'd say, 'Can we help them?'"
"I can't imagine my life without volunteer work," said Nicole Lawlor. "If I make a difference to one person, then they might be inspired to make a difference to someone else. It's all about what you get out of it."
Lawlor also excelled at academics. She maintained a 4.323 grade point average at River Ridge and chaired a five-day FBLA Business Symposium at the school that won an American Enterprise Project award at this spring's FBLA State Leadership Conference in Orlando.
Lawlor is interested in a career in sports and entertainment law, which she plans to study at the University of South Florida this fall. She also would like to start a foundation that would help cancer patients with their medical bills.
"I want to give back to people dealing with cancer who might get so sick because they don't have good insurance and can't afford treatments," she said.
Lawlor encourages other students to give back whenever possible.
"No matter how old you are, and how small your efforts, one person can make a difference," she said. "There is no limit and no boundaries to giving back."