Diagnosed with T-Cell lymphoma in November, 16-year-old Maria Ciarrocca of Pine knows the value of donating blood.
She already has needed three blood transfusions to deal with her body's reaction to chemotherapy treatments four times a week.
"When I get blood [transfusions], it makes me feel a hundred times better," she says, explaining that she feels a surge of energy within two hours afterward.
"I'm so appreciative when people give blood because it saves lives and makes so many patients feel a lot better."
Last month, Maria's mom, Lisa Ciarrocca, received an email request from the father of one of Maria's classmates, asking if the Pine-Richland High School junior would agree to become a poster child for Central Blood Bank's next local blood drive?
Mrs. Ciarrocca said yes.
"Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and if we could help someone out, we didn't have a problem with that," she said, noting that a hospital social worker had approached Maria about helping to promote a blood drive, but Pine-Richland junior Alex Dahlkemper already was in the process of promoting a drive in their community.
The Pine-Richland blood drives were started as a school club initially sponsored by U.S. history teacher Brittany Taylor.
Alex and classmate Hunter Coury already were working with Christine Paiano, business development coordinator for Central Blood Bank, to publicize local drives to high school students, staff and members of the community when they heard about Maria's illness.
"She's in my grade. We've known each other since elementary school," Alex said. "I never expected that someone I know would have cancer. It really surprised me."
Then he came up with the idea to do the February blood drive in Maria's name.
"I've always seen the need. Giving blood helps a lot of little kids, but Maria's story makes it stand out even more, because it's someone you know," he said.
Ms. Taylor said Alex's idea to involve Maria was a great way to motivate students to take part in the blood drive.
"Maria's story hits close to home, and the kids are seeing firsthand how important it is to donate blood," she said.
School board member Christine Misback recently took over for Ms. Taylor as the high school blood drive community coordinator.
"I have a list of wonderfully active community members who have given their time and caring nature over and over again for each blood drive that we have hosted, and that list continues to grow," Mrs. Misback said.
Maria's photo appeared on fliers distributed throughout the community in promoting the Feb. 27 blood drive. Her participation turned out to be a huge success.
"We collected a total of 173 units of blood, which will help 519 local patients in the coming days," Mrs. Misback said.
"So far, this school year we have collected 328 units of blood, touching the lives of 984 local patients."
Alex attributed the high turnout to Maria.
"For kids who were afraid to give blood before, this was a story they could relate to, and it gave them more of a reason to donate," he said.
"When it's someone you know, it makes such a big difference because then you realize the impact."
The students will host their fifth blood drive April 25 in the high school.
"When you give blood, you're saving someone's life more directly," said Hunter Coury, 17, of Pine. He acknowledged that giving blood can be scary.
"But it's also about that feeling of how good it is to give back, and the fact that people are going to benefit is far greater than how I might feel at the time I'm giving blood."
Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: email@example.com.