Raising money for worthy causes has long been a tradition among high school sports teams.
It's not often, however, that teenage athletes get to see the direct impact of their efforts or that the beneficiaries have familiar faces.
The Haverhill High School boys and girls basketball teams hosted a fundraiser last week during a double-header at the school to benefit cancer patients who have mounting medical bills. Leading up to the event, the student athletes have been selling lanyards, wristbands and key chains that match the "blackout" theme of the evening.
Between the two games, the teams hosted a ceremony to recognize the recipients of their cash-collecting efforts: Haverhill High senior Madison Copeland and Nancy Burke, a paraprofessional at the school.
Both members of the school community — Copeland since her freshman year and Burke for the past two decades — have endured battles with cancer.
"I just thought it was a great idea to use basketball as a platform so the team can actually see and have really a direct impact on someone's life," said Liz Stratton, a lead organizer of the Haverhill High boys basketball booster club. "I'm very overwhelmed with how the community is coming together on this. It's gone above and beyond my expectations."
The players wore black uniforms for these home games last Tuesday — sort of a "rebellious" act, according to Stratton — and everyone in attendance was encouraged to wear all black in solidarity, presenting a united, intimidating front to the visiting teams. Many people in the stands did indeed dress in black.
Stratton, an oncology nurse at Anna Jaques Hospital, met Burke during her chemotherapy treatments. The two didn't know of their mutual connection to Haverhill High School until it came up in conversation at the hospital, and Stratton's plan to benefit the award-winning educator with the "blackout" fundraiser was born.
It was during a routine mammogram in September that Burke was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. She's been in treatment since then, and has only one more chemotherapy session to go. Treatment has been difficult, Burke said, but she is grateful she caught the disease as early as she did.
"I was totally shocked and blown away that I had this, because I went last year and I didn't have it," Burke said. "Everyone knows me for planting the gardens at the school, but now I want to plant a new seed for everyone else: If they see anything funky on their body, or something weird — get it checked."
Copeland, a 17-year-old Haverhill High senior, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in April and underwent major surgery and weeks of chemotherapy before she was declared cancer-free in November. She was so affected by the chemotherapy's side effects that she lost 30 pounds and needed a feeding tube to maintain her weight.
"It really made me have a positive attitude about everything and have a different outlook on life," Copeland said. "I try to live every day like, be happy, be positive ... because I don't want to waste time being negative."
By the night before the event, Stratton said the teams had already collected $1,200 for the cause. More key chains, lanyards and wristbands were sold at the games last week, along with $15 T-shirts.
During a ceremony between the games, Burke and Copeland were honored by the Hillie players, Mayor James Fiorentini, state Rep. Andy Vargas of Haverhill and School Superintendent Margaret Marotta.