Tragedy to Triumph: The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

By Jennifer LoConte

“I’m going to save my sister,” stated five-year old Conner Reitz, after learning that his 20-month old sister, Claire, had been diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. In 1999, Claire began an extensive two-year treatment program consisting of daily oral chemotherapy, monthly intravenous chemo and weekly chemo-infused spinal taps. Conner, with the support of his parents Lynne and Dan, was determined to help his baby sister. After being turned down to participate in the San Diego Marathon because of his age, Conner and his family became involved with The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

LLS was founded in 1949 by a prominent New York family who lost their teenage son to leukemia. Originally named the Robert Roesler de Villiers Foundation, it became The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in 2000. Today, LLS boasts 60 chapters nationwide and is the world’s largest voluntary health organization. Their mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkins disease and myeloma and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families. To date, the organization has raised $680 million towards research funding.

The LLS opened a much-needed Lehigh Valley branch in 2000. Before this, patients and their families had to rely on the Philadelphia chapter, often too far for those looking for a local connection. Barry Diehl, Branch Manager, began his career with LLS as a volunteer two years ago after losing his father to the disease. Diehl said, “LLS offers educational programs and provides services for patients and their families at no charge.”  Two notable patient programs are First Connections and Trish Greene Back to School. First Connections provides a patient and family members the ability to be linked to others who have had a similar diagnosis. Diehl adds, “Successfully treated patients and family members can share their experience and offer support to those who have recently been diagnosed.” The Trish Greene program educates teachers and parents about the difficulties a young person may face when returning to school  after treatment. Diehl also emphasized the organization’s generous financial aid programs to help defray the cost of insurance payments and premiums.

There are numerous service-oriented fundraisers with which local communities can become involved. Elementary school programs include “Pennies for Pasta,” sponsored by The Olive Garden Restaurant and “Pennies for Patients,” which starts by collecting spare change. Team In Training, which is endurance sport-based fundraising, offers events throughout the country and will train interested participants, locally. Recently, the Lehigh Valley branch held a grand finale of “Man and Woman of the Year,” a campaign aimed at those who can use their connections within the community to raise awareness. This year, top finishers were Anne Baum, Vice President of Capital Blue Cross, Lehigh Valley and Jeff Fegley, owner of BrewWorks.

“Light The Night,” a national fundraising walk, now in its tenth year, is held to pay tribute and bring hope to those diagnosed with cancer. This year, “Light The Night, Lehigh Valley” will kick off at 6pm on October 16th at Northampton Community College. Participants will receive an illuminated balloon; red for supporters, white for survivors or gold in memory of a loved one. The walk, just shy of two miles, is wheelchair- accessible, stroller- and pet-friendly.

Pamela Formica, Campaign Manager, lost her 15-year old son to leukemia in 2006 and says, “Last year, 3500 people participated and raised $297,000. This year’s goal is $335,000.” Families arrive early to enjoy the arts and crafts tent, food tent, basket raffles and moon bounce. The kickoff is currently in progress and although not necessary, pre-registration is encouraged. Formica adds, “LLS will set up a personal fundraising webpage for each participant to assist with online contributions.”

Today, Claire is an 11-year survivor and looking forward to beginning eighth grade. Last year, she won an academic award at school and loves to read and rollerblade. The family remains dedicated to LLS and continues to participate in programs and fundraisers. Conner has traveled to the statehouse in Harrisburg on several occasions to speak about clinical trials. Dan participated in two cycling events with Team in Training. Lynne participates in First Connections and has established numerous relationships with both patients and family members. Every year, the entire family–with Conner as team captain–continues to participate in “Light The Night” and almost always places first for fundraising as a “friends and family” team. Team Zoomin’ Fireflies has raised $100,000 and what was once a five-member team has grown to 145. Thanks to the continued support of families like Claire’s, the dedication of passionate volunteers and countless others across the nation, LLS continues to lead the fight against cancer.

For further information: or 877-LTN-WALK.

Jennifer LoConte is a freelance writer who holds a bachelor’s degree in professional writing and a master’s degree in criminal justice.

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