In two months, nine local high school students raised a total of $122,506 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

This year, the Rio Grande Valley’s LLS chapter hosted the organization’s campaign project, Student of the Year: a 7-week competition between high school students to raise the largest donation for the blood cancer nonprofit. This is the fifth year the nationwide organization has run the campaign, and the first year the local chapter has taken on the project.

Students were responsible for reaching out to local businesses and setting up meetings to deliver their pitches. Each candidate recruited their own team to help reach their monetary donation goal.

Jessica Villarreal, the Valley’s campaign manager, worked with the nine selected students to train them to be well-versed in the organization, and prepared them with leadership skills to best represent it. She said the project has two goals: to teach students leadership skills, and to give them an opportunity to get involved in nonprofit work.

“What this teaches them is how to run a campaign and manage people — how to do a little bit of business management,” Villarreal said. “They have to come up with a business plan and figure out what they were going to do to raise these funds… They took time out of their already busy schedules to work on this passion project. They didn’t do this for themselves, they weren’t raising money for them, they were raising money for patients.”

The campaign began January 18, and ended on March 6 with a formal gala where Madeline Muñoz, 16, was announced as the competition’s winner with a total of $27,155 collected.

Madeline Muñoz, 16, on March 6 at a gala hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Leukemia & Lymphoma Society chapter after she was announced as this year’s Student of the Year for raising more than $27,000 for the blood cancer nonprofit. (Courtesy photo)

The project was special to Muñoz because her grandfather died of lymphoma, a cancer in the lymphatic system, in 2017.

“Once Jessica told me and my mom about this, it just felt right,” the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo North High School junior said. “This something he would want me to do. I did this in his name.”

Muñoz hopes to work in the business administration field someday with a bank or hospital, and said she is grateful for the opportunity to get her feet wet in the profession while honoring her grandfather.

Villarreal said that unfortunately, it’s not difficult to find someone who hasn’t been affected by cancer, so recruiting candidates for the campaign was easy.

“It’s not hard to find someone who is passionate about cancer research because it has touched everybody,” she said. “Everyone knows someone who has cancer or has died from cancer, so we don’t want to see that happen anymore.”

All donations go toward funding research and providing resources for those in the fight against cancer. This year, 60,530 Americans will be diagnosed with leukemia, according to the American Cancer Society. That number for lymphoma is estimated to be 85,720.

Villarreal emphasized that funding research is crucial in lowering those figures.

“If we don’t pump money into finding a cure, then we can’t help anybody, so we have to think of the grand scale, the big picture,” she said. “We really have to find that cure, and the only way to find that cure is to continue doing research. And research is expensive, and the only way to fund it is to do more fundraising.”

Candidates came from all across the region, including students from Mercedes, McAllen, Phar and Edinburg. Villarreal said witnessing their confidence grow was her favorite part of leading the campaign.

“It was truly awesome to see what they blossomed into, they went from being kiddos to young professionals within a couple of weeks,” the McAllen native said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of this group of kids, and I can’t tell you how proud I am that the Valley came to help them and support LLS.”

Villarreal added that she hopes students learned that there are many ways to contribute to cancer research without having to become a medical specialist. She first learned this three years ago when she joined LLS.

“I realized that I am not a doctor, I am not a research scientist, but I have been given the ability to speak and advocate and do something with my words,” she said. “The more I learned about the organization, I realized I can do something to start change.”

Since this was the local chapter’s first year running the competition, raising over $100,000 exceeded Villarreal’s expectations.

“I am always excited to show people the big hearts we have down here and how much we are willing to do for other people, how generous and kind we are.”