Pina Cotesta darts from one person to another inside Lockerby Composite School's main office Oct. 25, sorting out logistical problems that inevitably crop up when hundreds of teenagers are involved in a fundraising event.
By her continued involvement in the Laura Cotesta Kids Caring for Kids cancer drive, she's making sure her eldest daughter's dream lives on.
Laura was first diagnosed with a spinal tumour at the age of eight. Her cancer returned five times, including the brain tumour which eventually took her life in 1996, at the age of 18.
Because there were no pediatric cancer facilities in Greater Sudbury at the time, Laura and her family were forced to travel to Toronto for her treatments.
Laura's experiences inspired her to help create the door-to-door fundraising event 17 years ago, when she was a Lockerby student.
Since that time, the drive has raised more than $604,000 for local pediatric cancer services through the Northern Cancer Foundation, including $54,000 during the Oct. 25 event.
“This fundraiser has been going on for 17 years,” said Tannys Laughren, executive director of the Northern Cancer Foundation, in a press release.
“Each and every year, the students and staff pull out all the stops to ensure that Laura Cotesta's legacy lives on. This group of community-minded individuals is our future, and we're tremendously proud of their work.”
If Laura were alive today, she'd be 34 years old. Perhaps she'd be married and have kids, as many of her friends do, Pina said.
But she said she knows Laura would be pleased to see her initiative is continuing, and that there's much more local access to pediatric cancer care.
“I think she would be so happy, because her vision has actually happened,” she said. “There has been a tremendous change in pediatric care here in Sudbury in the past 15 years.”
While many children still travel to the children's hospitals in Toronto or Ottawa for cancer treatments, there's at least some pediatric cancer care available at the Northeast Cancer Centre, Pina said.
Heather Gaffney, principal of Lockerby Composite School, said Pina is the “backbone” of the cancer drive.
“She knows the history and she knows the traditions,” she said. “Even though she's been through a few principals in the organization of this event, she ensures that everything that's really important remains the same year after year.”
Every year, Pina sits down with the student committee organizing the event, and brings out scrapbooks explaining Laura's story and the history of the cancer drive.
“She does it in a really loving way,” Gaffney said.
Beyond just being a memorial to a former student, the cancer drive also benefits current students by boosting morale and school spirit, while at the same time raising much-needed funds for the Northern Cancer Foundation, she said.
“It also establishes a lot of leadership and a sense of well-being in terms of doing something that's really significant and worthwhile for our community,” Gaffney said.
Meanwhile, Grade 12 Lockerby students Andrea Sandre, Tapanga Lecompte and Lisa Lee laugh and chat on a warm, moonlight-dappled fall evening as they walk up to strangers' doorsteps in the Bouchard Street area, asking for donations.
At most houses, they leave with at least a handful of change. Last year, one woman gave another student on Sandre's team a cheque for $300, helping them raise more than $1,000 in one evening.
“It's a lot of fun," Sandre said. "We get to go around, hang out with our friends, and afterwards, they give us pizza. We get to compare who raised the most money. It's great, because it all goes toward the cancer centre.”
Sandre points out that she and her friends were actually born the same year Laura started the cancer drive.
“It kind of means something to us that every year we've been living, it's been going on.”
Lecompte actually cut 11 and a half inches of her hair off at the launch of this year's cancer drive to be used to make wigs for children with cancer.
She did so in honour of her grandmother and one of her friends, Lockerby student Kelsey Phanton, who have been fighting cancer.
“When they got cancer, it was really important for me to have this opportunity,” Lecompte said.
As for what participating in the cancer drive is like, she said it's a really emotional experience for her, but she loves it at the same time.
Lee said she has friends on the cancer drive committee, and they told her about seeing handprints of those who have cancer on a wall during a visit to the Northern Cancer Foundation.
“It's actually pretty sad, because there's some from three months old to about 60 years old,” she said. “They all have cancer and they all have their hands on the wall. It's really touching.”