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Inspire: Milena Raso is driven to make a difference in the lives of cancer fighters

She lost her father to cancer and, with the support from her mother (a committed volunteer herself), has spent almost half her life working on behalf of all those fighting cancer

The art of fundraising and volunteering comes naturally to 18-year-old Milena Raso, who began cultivating her passion for helping others at the tender age of eight.

Losing her father, Filippo, to cancer when she was just 10 years old significantly impacted that journey. 

“I was compelled to volunteer in his memory and to keep a positive attitude,” said Raso. “For me, my community work is a way to honour my dad and hold onto all the wonderful memories our family made together. In my heart, I know he’s still encouraging me to do my best in life for myself and my family and for those I’m committed to helping.”

Her mother, Angela Corsi-Raso, recently retired from the Northern Cancer Foundation (NCF Sudbury) where she worked as a volunteer co-ordinator. 

Raso got her first taste of volunteering when she was eight.

“My mom helped co-ordinate NCF Sudbury’s Angels in Pink fundraising initiatives. I would see her going out to events and thought it would be fun to join her.

“It was quite an experience tagging along with her to one of their gala events. I felt so grown up, dressed in a pretty pink outfit. I was instantly attracted to the spirit and energy in the room.” 

Raso wanted to be part of the evening; however, being so young, she could not really do much in the way of volunteering. 

“Everyone was so friendly. The ambience was upbeat and hopeful. I was happy with my task — handing out information pamphlets to the guests.”

One of Raso’s favourite volunteer activities over the years has been fundraising for NCF Sudbury and for Northern Ontario Families of Children with Cancer (NOFCC).

“I especially enjoyed the annual Radiothon of Hope. One year I volunteered at the event in the lobby of the Cancer Centre and we raised enough funds to purchase two chemo suite nurse chairs. It was a really heartfelt moment for me.”

She also used her experience as a pageant contestant to further expand her fundraising efforts. Raso entered the pageant world in 2018. 

“I’ve always had my family’s love and support to pursue my dreams and personal development. My mom has been by my side at every event, especially during the many months of training and preparing for these competitions.”

Her hard work and dedication have certainly paid off. 

Raso was crowned Miss Teen Greater Sudbury 2019 and Miss Teen Heartbeat 2020. She also secured a top-15 spot at the Miss Northern Ontario 2019 pageant and earned first runner-up at the 2019 Canada Galaxy Nationals. 

At the world’s newest international pageant, Miss Regal World, Raso was second runner-up in their 2021 virtual competition.

Modern-day competitions have come a long way from beauty pageants of yesteryear. They have evolved into Beauty with a Purpose, encompassing a broad range of categories, along with a fundraising element and workshops teaching life skills such as effective communication and public speaking.

Competitors undergo scholastic testing, and submit a scrapbook depicting their interests and career goals. 

“We describe what community means to us, how we’re involved, and what our future ambitions are. I expressed my passion for volunteering and my aspiration to work as a Disney Princess at Disney World. It’s a dream job that brings so much joy to kids and their families.”

Another requirement is for pageant competitors to raise funds through corporate sponsorships, which includes providing sponsors with ads within the program book. 

“For me, this was an excellent way to learn how to communicate with adults on a professional level. I presented a letter of introduction to prospective sponsors and explained details of the sponsorship package.”

That self-confidence and hands-on experience inspired Raso to launch her own home-based business, Scrunchies by Milena, a not-for-profit enterprise whose proceeds support the NOFCC.

“The first time I competed at Miss Northern Ontario, I noticed that the other girls wore elastic accessories on their wrists, and I thought it would be fun to produce a similar accessory for hair. I also saw it as an opportunity to raise a few dollars for the NOFCC.” 

Raso sells her creative designs — which has grown to include hair scrunchies, bracelets and headbands — online and at her high school. The popularity of Scrunchies by Milena far exceeded anyone’s expectations as classmates, friends and family bought up all the accessories as quickly as she produced them. 

“My mom couldn’t believe it. She’s the one who taught me everything: I’ve been knitting and sewing since I was nine.”

The world may have come to a halt during the pandemic, but Raso hasn’t. A student at Marymount Academy, she came up with a creative way to ‘replace’ her cancelled co-op placement.

In March 2020, Raso launched a second production line, manufacturing protective face masks. 

“Every day after my homework is done, my mom, Nonna and I put in many hours sewing masks. I get orders daily. Right from the beginning it was crazy busy. We’re proud to help the community be safe during the pandemic and, at the same time, financially support an important cause.”

With 100 per cent of all proceeds donated to the NOFCC, she has committed to keeping the production line going into May 2021. 

Raso’s drive, spirit and leadership will no doubt pave the way for her to become a full-fledged entrepreneur in adulthood. In the meantime, though, Raso will pursue a university degree in social justice or criminology, “a discipline where I can help people on a larger scale beyond volunteering.” 

For now, she continues to produce beauty accessories to meet demand. 

“I’m overjoyed that my family’s efforts are making a positive difference in the lives of cancer patients.”

In late 2020, Raso was surprised and honoured to receive a very special award, the prestigious national YMCA Peace Medal recognizing exemplary youth for their commitment to the values of peace in the community. 

That commitment is also demonstrated through her involvement in a myriad of local charities and organizations, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Children’s Wish Foundation, the Black Youth Helpline, Sudbury Alzheimer’s Society and Extendicare, to name only a few.

Raso has a message for parents and other adults: “Don’t underestimate what young people can do. If they set their minds to it, they can accomplish a lot and your support and encouragement are so important to their success.”

And to young people Raso emphasizes that, if there’s something or someone holding you back from realizing your dreams, know that you can overcome obstacles to achieve those dreams. Be a good example to others your age and consider becoming a volunteer. You’ll learn many valuable lessons for life.

Milena Raso’s Words of Inspiration

Give all you can to help others. Everything you give is valuable, whether it’s time or money: every minute matters and every penny counts. You can see how your contribution is making a positive difference in someone’s life, and that’s incredibly satisfying. I encourage other youth to consider volunteering at their schools and support local charities. We all know there are many people in need in our region. You’ll see tangible evidence of how your efforts are making a difference. You’ll prove to the world that young people care about community and the future. Don’t give up on your dreams. Find a way to build your confidence. Self-confidence is what will help you realize those dreams and inspire your goals for the future.

Marlene Holkko Moore is a local communications professional and regular contributor to Inspire is made possible by our Community Leaders Program