For the past three years, a Smithson Valley High School student has represented Comal Independent School District as a Student of the Year candidate for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a tradition started by SVHS senior P.J. O’Toole in 2017 and that continues with the launch of the 2020 campaign by SVHS sophomore Avery Walker.
Walker will represent Comal ISD in its fourth year of this leadership development and philanthropy program in which high school students are nominated and chosen to participate in a fundraising competition for seven weeks. The candidate who raises the most funds at the end of the campaign is title the Student of the Year by the South Central Texas Chapter of LLS.
Walker said she is very excited to carry the torch for Smithson Valley and Comal ISD and believes her campaign is off to a great start. Walker has a few more months to plan and organize her team before her campaign begins in January. Her team name is “Hope for Peggy,” named for her grandmother who passed away from cancer and whom she never got to meet.
“I feel really good about keeping the tradition going, especially with all our Smithson Valley (students), it’s a really good name for our school and it’s a really good cause,” Walker said.
O’Toole, a childhood cancer survivor, said he is proud of his fellow students for keeping the movement going and making the campaign into a SVHS tradition.
“I think it’s really cool I was able to inspire others to also help change lives,” O’Toole said. “It’s really cool to be able to see all these others kids out here being passionate about the same thing I’m so passionate about.”
This money is going toward changing lives, O’Toole said, something he is a living testament for.
“As a 6-year-old boy I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia,” O’Toole said. “I was put into a research study that I think ended up saving my life.”
O’Toole is in his 12th year of remission. He said he feels the campaign helps students build lifelong friendships while also helping out.
“It’s just one of those amazing things that — it’s somebody nobody will ever be able to take away from you, you’ll always be able to say you were able to help kids with cancer,” O’Toole said.
During his 2017 campaign, O’Toole was able to raise $50,000 for the LLS. The SVHS 2018 Candidate Tyler Miles raised $26,650 during his campaign and the SVHS 2019 Candidate Kayla Friesenhahn raised $24,153 during her seven-week campaign. In total, the students have raised over $100,000 for LLS.
“I’ve always wanted to help out with community projects so this was a really cool thing I was very, very proud to be a part of and like P.J. was saying, it’s a lifetime thing, you can’t get rid of the experience you’ve had,” Miles said.
Miles said he had a great grandparent pass away from Leukemia, and he is very aware of the difficulties cancer inflict on a family.
“I’ve just known a lot of people through my communities and everything, either through military or that, who have had cancer so I just wanted to be part of that fighting force against it,” Miles said.
The campaigns came full circle under Friesenhahn. She had first met and seen P.J. during his own campaign and had heard him speak on the importance of the cause.
“In 8th grade our NJHS chapter at Smithson Valley Middle School, we ended up helping PJ a lot with his campaign and seeing him go out for his campaign and raise money was really inspiring,” Friesenhahn said.
Her own grandmother was very involved in raising money for Friesenhahn said.
“It’s been quite a few years that she’s been involved with LLS,” Friesenhahn said. “But those were the things that inspired me to run. I just think it’s a really great cause and LLS has done so much for patients with blood cancers in their families.”
A member of the SVHS dance team and a local fishing team, Walker will be actively campaigning to raise funds for LLS and seeking the community’s support to continue the tradition.
“No matter what you do,” said O’Toole, “you can make a difference. It doesn’t matter how old you are, just taking a little bit of your time and either donate or get involved in something will help save someone’s life.”