SOUTH TAMPA — At a time when most high school juniors fret about what to wear for prom or where to attend college, 16-year-old Elizabeth Dolan is running a nonprofit to help children with cancer and their families.
It's an idea she hatched a few months ago after serving as a counselor at Camp Agape in Seattle last summer. Like her sister and brother before her, Elizabeth discovered for herself the enormous personal and financial stress a cancer diagnosis can have when she was paired with a pediatric cancer patient and their family.
"It was one of the most inspiring weeks of my life," recalled Elizabeth, who lives in Safety Harbor and attends Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. "These kids teach you about sacrifice and resilience."
The experience had a lasting impact on Elizabeth, who began to consider ways that she could combine her love of cross country running with helping families dealing with cancer. The result is the nonprofit Crossing Out Cancer Inc., which she started in April. Run entirely by students, its mission is to raise money to help families of pediatric cancer patients at All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine pay for treatment and other expenses that they incur, whether that's helping to pay for groceries, food or utilities.
Elizabeth, who runs on the Academy of the Holy Names cross country team, recruited fellow cross country captains from 12 other high schools around Tampa Bay to serve as her board of directors. Over the past few months, they've put aside their rivalries to plan a 5K race for high school runners scheduled for Saturday at Picnic Island Park. The students have coordinated everything from the race course, to securing sponsors to recruiting runners. They also organized a dinner event that was held on Nov. 12 at EATS! American Grill in South Tampa.
"It's not just adults who can start an event and make a difference," Elizabeth said.
Pediatric cancer patients need difference makers. With some cancer treatments costing as much as $60,000 for 28 days of treatment, it's not uncommon for families to need some financial assistance, since health insurance only covers so much. Decisions such as whether to purchase groceries or pay for medications become very real dilemmas. And it isn't uncommon for at least one parent of a pediatric cancer patient to lose their job because of the amount of time spent away from work in order to care for their child.
"It's easy to see the financial strain build up," said Dr. Gregory Hale, an oncologist at All Children's Hospital. It's an issue he admits the hospital's physicians and social workers deal with weekly, if not daily. "No matter how well off or how much you plan, most families suffer in some way. When your child has cancer, you shouldn't have to worry about anything else."
For some of the patients, help is on the way. Before the race has even begun, Elizabeth and her Cross Out Cancer crew have raised almost $30,000, exceeding their fundraising goal by nearly $5,000. And Elizabeth has earned the admiration of adults like All Children's Hospital's special events manager Taylor Traviesa. Elizabeth and her mom met with Traviesa to share the teen's idea and business plan.
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Traviesa says many organizations and individuals offer to help the pediatric patients at All Children's, but Elizabeth stands out for her dedication.
"She's uniting her generation in the Tampa community," Traviesa said. "Not only is she giving back, she's inspiring other kids her age to make a difference, too."
Elizabeth hopes the race will be an annual event, and that after she graduates, another student will carry on her legacy — proof that making a difference has no age barriers.
Contact Candace Rotolo at email@example.com.