NEW PORT RICHEY — For those set to graduate high school in Pasco County, the senior project is one of those last hurdles, landing somewhere in an eclectic mix of end-of-year commitments — grad bash, senior prom, senior skip day, final exams.
It comes with its own to-do list: There's a research paper to tackle, a relationship with a mentor to forge, 15 hours of volunteer hours to log with a nonprofit organization and a tangible, final product to launch and present for a panel of judges.
Some seniors fret or procrastinate. Mitchell High's Cody Millian, 17, embraced the challenge.
"I knew right away that I wanted to do something with cancer for my project," he said.
He organized a golf tournament in memory of his grandfather, who died in January 2010 of bone cancer.
And he raised $10,000 to help others battling the disease.
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Cody was eager to reach out and help people he didn't know. But his inspiration came from someone close to his heart: his late grandfather, John Kubek, who lived in the Seven Springs Golf and Country Club community with his wife of 54 years, Judy.
"He would walk every morning," Cody said. "Golf every day and play poker with his friends every Thursday."
And watch NASCAR on Sundays, even though his family joked about it. He was from upstate New York, after all.
Kubek's quick passing at age 74 proved inspirational for Cody, who set his sights on helping the Livestrong Program, which offers emotional and physical support for cancer survivors wanting to get back on their feet after undergoing debilitating treatments.
Cody spent time at the local program at the James P. Gills YMCA in New Port Richey, assisting fitness instructor Corinna Vereb in a 12-week regimen that helps members build strength and muscle mass and increase endurance and flexibility. He logged some 40 hours assisting people like Diane Bekesh, 49, who is recovering after her second bout of breast cancer, and Jim Vaughn, 66, who has multiple myeloma.
"He's been great," Vaughn said. "He exercises right along with you — helps push us, sometimes, we when we don't want to be pushed."
For Cody, who wears two yellow Livestrong bracelets — one in memory of his grandfather and another in honor of a close friend's parent — it was an eye-opening experience.
"When they all got into a circle to introduce themselves, they all remember the date they were diagnosed," he said. "Most people think cancer is a life sentence. But people there think, 'Okay, I have it. I'm going to conquer it and go on with my life.' "
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Cody wanted to give more than his time. He decided to plan a golf charity event in his grandfather's honor, to raise money to help cancer survivors.
"Golf seemed like the perfect thing," Cody said, "because my grandfather loved to golf."
He began planning a golf outing for March 11, his grandfather's birthday. And early on he set a goal of raising $5,000.
"At first I thought it was ridiculous," said Cody's dad, Howard Millian, who runs a family-owned air conditioning and heating company. "I asked him, 'Do you realize what's involved?' But he wanted to go ahead with it, so I figured, okay, we'll make it a family outing. I'll donate $1,000 — and that will be that."
Cody had bigger plans. He began recruiting volunteers and spoke before members of the Trinity Rotary Club.
"Let me tell you about my grandfather," he started. Before long he had 25 sponsors ponying up $100 a hole. Local businesses stepped up, donating services and prizes for special contests and raffles. It snowballed from there.
"People that didn't even golf sent in checks," said Cody's mom, Susan Millian.
"The kid was amazing," said Mark Boyko, assistant golf pro at Seven Springs Golf and Country Club. "We met multiple times, and by the third time, I was like, 'Have you done this before?' He nailed every aspect of the tournament.
"He had the place packed. Everybody jumped on board. The community jumped on board. I have to say, it was one of our best tournaments ever."
"It was a perfect day," Susan Millian said. "Perfect weather. It was just perfect."
Grand total: $10,000.
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Last week, as about 16 members of the current Livestrong class looked on, Cody presented the check to Denise Ferrara, the wellness director at the YMCA.
"That was great," Diane Bekesh said. "I'm really happy about it."
That money, said Cody, "will go to whatever they need. If they need weights, T-shirts, chairs, whatever."
And with his help, the class will get bigger and better, said Vereb, noting that even though he has completed the volunteer aspect of his project, Cody is still stopping by to help out.
"I'm just amazed," said his mom. "How he incorporated it with his grandfather's birthday and recruited all those volunteers to help out. We're just blown away. Hats off — we're so proud."