Last year, Voorhees Middle School teacher Noreen Saggese rallied her sixth-grade students together to raise money to find a cure for cancer.
She’s shared snippets of her own personal journey with cancer and students have responded with a willingness to help.
Saggese, now in her 34th year of teaching, is a breast cancer survivor.
She said she just had a cancer scare two weeks ago — and still longs for a time when cancer will be a disease of the past. But in the meantime, she is doing everything she can to help find a cure.
And that’s why parents, teachers, staff and students decided to host an even bigger fundraising event this year.
Last week, the entire school community participated in a basketball shoot-off which Saggese said gave kids a chance to take their own shot at cancer.
Students paid $1 to take three free throws on the basketball court. If they made one in, they received a ticket they could drop into a box to be entered to win a signed Flyers’ hockey stick from coach Peter Laviolette, hockey pucks signed by players or gift cards.
But money raised wasn’t going to Saggese’s treatment or medical bills.
Saggese is part of a non-profit group called Pennies in Action.
Uschi Keszler, a former Olympic figure skater from Germany-turned Canadian Olympic coach, founded the group.
A few years ago, Saggese and Keszler realized they shared a few things in common. They were both being treated by University of Pennsylvania Dr. Brian Czerniecki, co-director of the Rena Rowan Breast Center.
And they were both passionate about searching for new ways to find a cure for something dear to them.
Czerniecki began discussing a vaccine he was working on that could potentially cure different forms of cancer. Some of the vaccines are still in a trial period at Penn.
Both Saggese and Keszler said they found their doctor’s research intriguing and optimistic.
Keszler formed the group Pennies in Action to help fund Czerniecki’s work at Penn to develop life-saving vaccines.
When Saggese heard about her doctor’s promising research, she knew she had to get involved.
“My doctor saved my life,” Saggese said. “So I asked him what can I do to help.”
From there, Saggese teamed up with Keszler, who has conquered both breast and uterine cancer.
Both Saggese and Keszler admit Czerniecki’s research is experimental, but they both believe his forward thinking will deliver promising results.
Keszler said Czerniecki shared his own story of becoming a doctor, which solidified her thoughts on supporting his research.
“He wanted to be a forest ranger and was told he was the smartest in his class. So he went to med school,” Keszler said. “He’s a brilliant surgeon with a brilliant imagination.”
Each year, Czerniecki makes a wish list of what he needs in his lab. Most of the money Pennies in Action raises goes to support his needs to help develop the vaccines, Keszler said.
This year, the group helped procure a new microscope, two new incubators and a refrigerator for his laboratory. Pennies in Action also recently helped secure a $1.4 million grant for his research.
The rest of the money goes toward making educational videos, as well as other services the non-profit provides.
Saggese said she will continue her mission to bring awareness to the disease. She’s happy she could start with her own community.
“My whole school, all the teachers, my new principal — they’re all supporting me. Cancer touches everyone,” Saggese said.
Keszler said she’s recently lost three friends to pancreatic cancer. Harking back to her Olympic days, she said this is one race she has to win for herself and for everyone else who battles cancer.
“The Olympics are a big honor to participate in. But there’s no podium finish in cancer. So I’m going for the gold,” Keszler said. “With cancer, you have to win. You win to live.”
To learn more about Pennies in Action, visit www.penniesinaction.org.