From pain to promise.

By Peter Chiykowski

 

Caroline Mierzwa has been called a Rockstar volunteer—not only did she spend a summer volunteering to support loved ones of children receiving treatment for serious illness, she also inspired her WE Schools club to gather thousands of toiletries for these families.

All told, Carmel High School’s WE Schools club collected 3,300 toiletries for San Francisco’s Family House, a non-profit providing accommodation and emotional support for the families of children undergoing treatment for life-threatening illnesses. It’s housed at the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital.

“We really got to see [an example of] someone who took an idea and ran with it,” says educator Leigh Cambra of Caroline’s impressive and inspiring leadership. Leigh helped establish the WE Schools club after Carmel students attended WE Day California.

She says Caroline’s leadership within the WE Schools club is so special because she brought her previous volunteer experience to the table and inspired others. “So many times [our students] do really cool things when they go off to college,” Leigh explains. “But to have a student do it at the end of junior year and come back to tell everybody about it—that’s huge. It inspired a lot of kids”

Caroline’s inspiration to approach Family House about becoming the organization’s first live-in intern started at home. She learned firsthand how childhood illness can devastate a family, having lost her youngest cousin to lung cancer, while another cousin lives with cystic fibrosis.

 

Hailing from the small town of Big Sur—three hours down the coast from San Francisco, it was a daunting move. She had never lived in the big city or apart from her parents before; the thought of her first day away from home was intimidating, for that reason and more. “I was definitely nervous about how the families would react to me,” recalls Caroline.

She learned to face her fears quickly and by day two, she was running the front desk—a position no volunteer had ever covered before. Determined to do all she could to support the residents of Family House, Caroline would sometimes helm the front desk until 11:00 p.m. in order to be available for guests.

Welcoming people to their home away from home reminded Caroline of what family members had gone through in Poland while seeking treatment for her cousin with cystic fibrosis. Sometimes they would drive five hours to get medical treatment for her cousin, going days without showering, while sleeping on floors and in cars. “When families come up to you and say ‘I don’t have anything, do you have anything?’ To be able to say ‘Yes, we can help you’ speaks more than words.”

One young guest literally had a strong hold on her: a two-year-old Tibetan girl whose family moved to America to seek treatment. Even though the child was still learning English, she would simply wrap her small hand around Caroline’s pinky finger, until she agreed to colour with her. “She would always grab me and say, “Play with me! Play with me,” says Caroline. “It was so heartwarming. She couldn’t really communicate with me, but she still wanted to be with me as much as she could.”

 

And Caroline wanted to be there—for this little girl and the rest of the Family House residents, but after five weeks living among them, it was time to return home for her senior year.

Back at Carmel High School in Big Sur, Caroline looked to the WE Schools club to help continue her work for the families she’d left behind in San Francisco. With a goal of taking one local action and one global action, the club helped other school clubs with charity drives and volunteer actions.

“What I like about WE is that you have the local action and the global action and it’s not directed,” comments Leigh. “We could do whatever we want to.”

And what the WE Schools club wanted was to help Caroline’s new extended family.

Together, students visited freshman classrooms with Caroline sharing stories about the families she had met. Soon after, the ninth grade homerooms were competing to bring in donations.

By the time the drive was over, the club needed a van to deliver their boxes and to see Family House for themselves. “They all were pretty much blown away,” says Leigh of the visit. “So often we do these drives and then somebody comes and picks it up and that’s it. For the students to actually see where all that stuff collected is going–watching as these families come up with their kids in wheelchairs [or seeing] kids hooked up to oxygen—it was a big eye-opener.”

The WE Schools club provides an opportunity for Carmel students to learn beyond the classroom. “I tell them all the time: When you look back on high school, you may not remember what you learned in Spanish class today, but you’re going to remember those experiences you had and the people that had an impact on you.”

For Caroline, working with the club to support a cause–the people–close to her heart was an unforgettable experience. “It’s really touching for my family,” shares Caroline. “They’re all exposed to hospital hardship, and for them to see that I am trying to make a difference in the lives of families who are undergoing what they went through is just really touching.”

 


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