Local High Schoolers Nominated for LLS Indianapolis Students of the Year
When a disease, condition or tragedy hits home, that’s often when advocates are born. Such is the case for Kate Simek and Ella Chafin, both juniors at Plainfield High School (PHS). Simek and Chafin each had grandparents who battled leukemia and lymphoma, forms of blood cancer. While leukemia affects the blood and bone marrow, lymphomas tend to affect the lymph nodes. Simek’s great grandmother, Dorothy Stringer, was diagnosed when Simek was in fourth grade and passed away within one year.
“She took care of me and my brother after school every day because both my parents worked full time,” Simek says. “She made the best fried chicken and always gave us Twizzlers.”
Both of Chafin’s grandparents on her dad’s side had blood cancer. Her grandmother, Jeanette Chafin, had lymphoma before Ella was born, and survived. Sadly, leukemia took her grandfather, Vernal Chafin, in 2019. Prior to his death, he suffered greatly.
“He was sick my whole life, always in and out of hospitals,” Chafin says. “It was hard seeing my grandma sit by him as he was going through treatments and how it affected her. It was also tough seeing both my dad and my uncle watch their dad pass away.”
In addition, Chafin has had many family friends who have been diagnosed with blood cancer, ranging in age from 20s to 60s.
“When my great-grandma was sick, she got super weak and tired,” Simek says. “She had to wear a wig because of her treatment. It was hard to see someone I had known to be so strong grow so much weaker.”
What the girls, who have known each other since they were 3 years old, have come to realize is that everyone has a cancer story, as cancer touches so many lives. That’s precisely why they wanted to do something to help ease the pain.
Brian Peterson, a family friend of the Simeks, nominated the girls for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) 2022 Indianapolis Students of the Year program. The LLS is the largest nonprofit funder of blood cancer research, and is the leading source of free education and support for blood cancer patients and families. As for education and support, they provide personalized support and assistance with identifying and enrolling people in clinical trials.
“When we found out that we were each nominated, we wanted to team up and do this together,” Simek says. “Our circles are blended so we accepted the nomination and are participating as a co-candidate team.”
Simek and Chafin, the first from Hendricks County to be nominated for this program, are team leaders. They then asked others to join their 10-member team.
“We have five other students and several adults ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, who reached out to other companies to help us find additional connections,” Chafin says. “This way we can reach as many people as possible from all different circles and even different cities. We rallied our community around this cause, and they supported us in raising money for it.”
The girls learned about their nomination in July of 2021 and had the remainder of the year to plan fundraisers, secure corporate sponsorships and organize their team members. Starting on January 20, 2022, they had seven weeks to hit their goal amount, which they set at $50,000, though they are hoping to double that amount. Simek and Chafin selected $50,000 because that’s the amount they need to be able to direct their donation. They want all funds to support pediatric cancer drug research since there are only four pediatric drugs for cancer that have been discovered in the past three decades.
“We were blown away by how low that is,” Chafin says. “If pediatric patients can’t receive one of those four drugs, for whatever reason, then they have to take a lower dose of an adult drug, which can be harmful. That’s why we want to direct the money we raise towards that kind of research to help find more cures for children.”
Should they fall short of their $50,000 goal, the money will still get put to good use as it would go to the LLS national headquarters. They rely on active volunteers like Simek and Chafin to help advocate for them, so that the organization can work to drive policy changes that accelerate the development of new cancer treatments and break down barriers to care.
To gear up for their seven-week fundraising campaign, last fall the girls approached area businesses requesting sponsorships. They also talked to the PHS administration to get permission to raise funds at the school. For instance, at winter homecoming in January, they had a “Red Out” theme and a portion of basketball ticket sales benefitted their cause.
Working toward the greater good is something these students have been doing since they were little girls. When Simek’s grandmother was first diagnosed, her elementary school did a “Pennies for Patients” event, for which students collected pennies to donate to a cause. Simek raised $300, and her family members matched it. That was her first involvement with the LLS. Even at such a young age, Simek recognized how uplifting it felt to do something that helped others with their health and well-being.
“When I got the message that I could do this on a bigger scale I was so excited,” she says.
Chafin, who plans to pursue a career in pediatric medicine, was also honored to get the chance to do something that would not only help cancer patients but also bring the community together in a positive way.
Simek intends to study business and finance, and potentially pursue a career that would involve fundraising, so this endeavor is a great precursor.
“I built skills like teamwork and facilitating meetings – skills you wouldn’t get through a program,” Simek says. “Plus, raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society allowed me to honor my grandmother while helping to impact lives. I’m [developing] all of these skills to benefit other people.”
The girls also held a silent auction and auctioned off items like Indiana Pacers tickets, Indiana University event tickets, spa trips, gift cards and even tickets to Disney World.
“We themed our baskets so we had a Tennessee basket and an Ohio basket – things that were regional,” Chafin says.
Many of the donations for the silent auction came from people who had been personally affected by blood cancers in some way.
“Truly, everybody has a cancer story,” Chafin says. “Everyone has that connection.”
PHS Principal Patrick Cooney is impressed by these two ambitious students.
“Words cannot begin to describe how incredibly proud I am of Kate and Ella,” Cooney says. “They are two dynamic young ladies who have demonstrated a sincere passion for supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. These are two fantastic students.”