Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lauryn Maes  plans to run a June marathon in her battle to raise money for cancer.
Michelle Mandich with friends.

San Pedro College Student Plans Marathon Run Already Raising Thousands of Dollars After Too Many Young Friends Have Been Diagnosed With Cancer;

Suddenly She Learns the List Now Includes Her Mother

By Diana L. Chapman

Lauryn Maes plans to slip on her sneakers and run and run and run. 

When she boldly joins the “San Diego Rock-n-Roll Marathon” on June 5,  she’ll streak forward with powerful determination “to kick cancer’s butt one step at a time” while raising funds to halt the disease -- along with her “honorary teammates.”

Her honorary teammates include three youths two of whom died from different forms of leukemia, including one of her closest friends, Michelle Mandich, a popular San Pedro High cheerleader who died in Feb. 23, 2005. She’s also running for two San Pedro friends who currently are surviving cancer, Sydney Botica, 16,  and her cousin, Janelle Vivanco, 13.

 It’s a fact of Lauryn’s life that she takes cancer personally. The journey has been arduous . Painful. And unexpected, starting with Michelle whose death left her in a state of turmoil and forced her to learn quickly about the realities of life. In the middle of this interview, she received a call from her mother and learned that afternoon her mother has kidney cancer.

“Four days ago, I received news from my mom that she has kidney cancer. I can't explain the feeling that rushed through my body,” Lauryn wrote on her Team-in-Training site, which helps people train to run and raise funds for cancer research. “Tingling....Numbness....Sickened....Angered... Scared... I didn't know how to react… I wanted to fix it. I wanted to tell her she was lying. But it is the truth, and I am still learning how to deal with it. She has always been my foundation. I’ve never doubted once in my life that she would be there for me.”

She’s now added her mother, Laura D’Anna, 46, to her honorary team. Her 26.2 mile marathon was long in the works before she learned about her mother’s illness.

Thus far, the 21-year-old college student’s sheer determination has raised $2,500 by selling “bling” coffee mugs. As for the marathon,  doctors, dentists, friends and family have already committed more than $10,500 through the non-profit Team in Training, an organization that trains runners like Lauryn. Team in Training has raised $1 billion for cancer research specifically for that purpose.

Thus far, she’s received donations as small as $10 to $1,000. Even though, she has nearly reached her goal of $10,000, she said, she plans to raise even more through the marathon. She will have another fundraiser in May and will keep jogging on to raise money for cancer research.

She’s driven hard by all those who have died and touched her life.

Michelle was her first handshake with young death. Before she went on to high school from Dodson Middle School, her mom sat her down and prepared her that in her upper grades she might start losing friends to car accidents, drug use and illnesses. She blesses her mom every day for it and calls her step-father, Rich, the other rock in her life.

“I remember thinking at the time: “What is this lady talking about,”” said a perky and loving Lauryn said, whose eyes well up with tears when she talks about Michelle or anyone she knows with cancer. “And there were kids into drugs, kids who got stabbed and kids, did indeed, die.”

In honor of her team, Lauryn trains four days a week, running at least 3.5 miles and when she trains she thinks of her times with Michelle, who she says, never gossiped or spoke a bad word about anybody. Most of all, she can’t forget while she and other cheer leaders were getting ready for a winter formal, Michelle was laying in the hospital unable to get out of bed.

In particular, she recalls how Michelle’s 17-year-old boyfriend, Dominic Di Bernnardo dressed up for the dance, drove directly to the hospital and spent the evening with her.

“It was so confusing,” explained the 21-year-old student who is studying for her masters in psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “We were all only 15. Michelle should have been going to the movies, going to dances, going to school like the rest of us. But instead, she was stuck in the hospital. When we found out of her passing, everyone was crying at school. She had touched so many people. They had to bring in counselors.

“I understood the possibility. But I didn’t believe it at first. And then I realized, this is real.”

The pain was so great from that tragedy, Lauryn said, she couldn’t imagine it touching  again. But it did. Many times over.

Leonardo Russo, 12
Soon, she would learn a 12-year-old family friend, Leonardo Russo, who attended Crestwood Street Elementary School, and had cancer.  After a seven month battle with non hodgkins mature b cell lymphoma, he died Sept. 22, 2010.

 Prior to that, Lauryn became concerned when a  9-year-old soccer player, Devin Hamilton, who also attended Crestwood, didn’t show up for her first soccer practice. Lauryn, the team’s coach, called Devin’s mother only to learn Devin had leukemia too. She died Jan. 26, 2010. 

Devin Hamilton, 9

That’s when Lauryn decided to take on her own personal siege against cancer, now battling for two more people she cares about, cousin Janelle who has nasopharyngeal carcinoma (behind the mouth and nasal cavities) and Sydney, a San Pedro High student. who is in remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Victoria Botica, Sydney’s mother, explained she appreciates Lauryn’s efforts and how difficult it is for a family to cope with cancer.

Sydney Botica, a San Pedro High student
Lauryn's cousin, Janelle Vivanco, 13

“Dealing with cancer is something no teenage girl should have to go through,” Victoria Botica said. “They should be worrying about clothes, make-up and boys, not blood counts, nausea and death. My hope is that someday (hopefully soon) no one will have to go through what we did.”

Lauryn just hasn’t done fundraising with the marathon. She’s selling bracelets for $1 that say “Kicking cancer's butt one step at a time” and “F…Cancer.” Having made Sydney a designer feather hair clip as a gift, the concept went virile once Sydney posted it on facebook.

Lauryn received more than 100 orders  for the feather hair clips that range anywhere for $25 and up and is keeping her working late at night.

“This kid is amazing,” said her aunt, Diana Chavez-Feipel. “She is over her $10,000 goal and has about six more weeks before the race to keep fundraising. All the while, she’s carrying straight As. Yah, you can say I’m a very proud auntie.”

 But for Lauryn, the strain and effort is worth it if she can help save lives.

Cancer “is a huge epidemic here and in Palos Verdes,” said Lauryn, who is a nanny for four children while she plucks away at her degree. “Obviously it’s a huge issue and if do anything, I just want to make people aware.

“People will say: ‘I can’t really help. I’m just one person.’ But there’s a lot people can do.’”

Everyone of the parents gave Lauryn their blessing to use their children’s names as honorary teammates, she said.

Donations can be made at:

“Michelle lives with me every day and I’m inspired by her happiness,” she said. “It just feels so good to know you are doing something.”