As a freshman searching to give back to her community, Sarah McLean ’21 was immediately drawn to a new initiative being launched by the Lowcountry chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS): the Students of the Year campaign (SOY). An annual elite leadership development program for local high school students, the SOY accepts nominations for student leaders to participate in a seven-week competition to raise funds and awareness for LLC. Since its inception in the Lowcountry, SOY participants have raised over $815,000 for LLC to aid in research, advocacy, and patient support of those affected with blood cancers.

Besides the fulfilling work, McLean, whose cousin passed away due to blood cancer complications, recognized that by giving back, she would help ensure that one day no family would have to suffer the loss of a loved one from a blood cancer. Now a senior who has worked with the SOY campaign for the past four years, McLean serves as this year’s Chair of the Student Leadership Team. She recently shared her experience guiding the first all-female SOY candidate class through the campaign season and her deep appreciation for an organization that has profoundly impacted her life.

(Click HERE to learn more about the Students of the Year campaign)

Discuss your work this year as the Chair of the Leadership Team for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Lowcountry Student of the Year program. What have been some of the challenges you have had to overcome because of the pandemic, and what makes you most proud?

McLean: “My work began in the summer of 2020. As the Chair of the Leadership Team, I worked with the team to brainstorm ideas for candidates, listen to ideas, and plan out the new year. At the beginning of this campaign season, I conducted meetings with the team, the manager for the division in the Lowcountry, the Student Leadership Team Vice-Chair, and the Executive Leadership Team Chair. The meetings occurred twice a month, then once a month when our candidate list was set. As the Chair, my job is to answer questions from the leadership team, build comradery, and work with the Vice-Chair to build new ideas and installments within LLS.

In a pandemic year, my roles changed, and the way we went about our tasks was transformed to a computer screen. Instead of meeting at a Starbucks and pitching our campaign to potential candidates or company sponsors, we met with everyone via Zoom. In preparation for these meetings, the student Leadership Team was tasked with reaching out to people within the Lowcountry community to participate in the SOY program. SOY is a very hands-on campaign, and without going forth in society, even masked and distanced, we used virtual methods to tell amazing students about our life-changing opportunity to raise money for cancer research.

My team adjusted to the inevitable and started to use Zoom to conduct meetings. These introductions to LLS included a PowerPoint presentation given by our manager to the SOY candidates and their parents. The students who nominated candidates are also present in the meetings to share their experiences and why they would make amazing candidates. Though it was not always the case that a nominee would agree to participate, we were still able to enlighten the community on what the SOY campaign is and what our mission is to better society. This year, we were able to secure fifteen candidate teams who are the first candidate class to be all girls.

We decided to make our Zoom meetings festive to make online SOY more exciting. This ranged from Christmas outfits and funniest hats to Halloween-themed Zoom calls. We tried everything to make these calls feel as if we were there together. Before each meeting, the manager, Vice Chair, and I would meet to discuss the upcoming meeting, prepare any questions, brainstorm, and review our speeches. My favorite part of these meetings is our Minute for Mission. This is the first minute of each meeting where we share an inspirational cancer survivor video, story, or advancement in the campaign. This Minute for Mission helps us to remember why we are fighting so hard to raise money for this worthy cause.

The first event for our candidates was our workshop where we helped the candidates start to think about their team and campaign and to feel comfortable about their life-changing choice to be a part of the LLS family. Within the workshop, they heard from former candidates, team members, parents, our Honored Hero who is fighting cancer, and a cancer survivor. This year, my leadership team has eleven active members below me. Every candidate team is assigned a Leadership Team mentor, who supports, guides, and teaches. Everyone who participates in LLS supports each other to the point that it is not only a competition but also a support group to fund the same fight.

For our mentees, we went to their houses for a surprise visit, during which we delivered gifts to welcome them and congratulate them on joining LLS. Each week I reach out to my mentees via FaceTime to encourage them, offer support, see what’s coming up, and be a sounding board for their ideas. I am proud of all the candidates who have taken on this fight and are staying committed to their job, even with a hectic schedule and school.” 

How has working with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Student of the Year program enriched your high school years? What do you find most rewarding about the experience?

McLean: “LLS has helped me to find my identity through charity and giving back to people within my community who are battling cancer. LLS is funding research, and being a part of the SOY campaign from its first year in the Lowcountry has allowed me to watch it grow and reach almost everyone in Charleston. What I find most rewarding about being a part of the program is watching students realize they have a voice and can make a difference in a seemingly adult field. Though they have to work harder than anyone, I get to see the smiles that come to everyone’s faces when we lift the numbers at the end of the year, which is the total amount the high school students who are a part of the campaign have raised.”

Why is philanthropy so important to you? Do you have any plans to stay involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society once you graduate?

McLean: “My cousin passed away due to blood cancer complications so giving back in any way helps me to ensure that one day a family will never have to go through the loss of a daughter, son, sister, brother, mother, father, cousin, loved one, or friend. Cancer in particular has affected almost everyone I’ve met, and until there is a cure, I will not stop funding the fight. Depending on where I go to college, I would love to be part of their local LLS chapter. With the adjustment to COVID-19, there might be ways to still participate in the Lowcountry’s chapter via Zoom.

This year I’ve had to be creative in my fundraising, so I suggested making an Instagram account for thrifted and gently used clothes where fifty percent of the profits go back to the LLS. I came up with this idea from watching successful stores on Instagram and added a twist to give back. I suggested it to my Vice President, and together we started our online fundraising store, @lls_thrifted. On the page, we have collaborated with SOY candidate teams to upload their items as well, and half will go to their campaign while half goes to the leadership team account, which funds the SOY campaign.

So far, we have uploaded one hundred and fifteen posts, worked with a candidate team clothing drive, received donations from two candidate teams, used the PSA drive team to collect clothing, and raised around $80 for LLS in three and a half months. The pandemic has made it difficult to reach a large audience, but with the help of social media we can connect with different social groups, adults, families, and friends online through the store. By combining the love for shopping, low prices, clothing from each other, and a wonderful cause, we can spread the word of LLS. This store includes everyone through artistic ability of the logo and fashion selection, social networking, financing, providing a product, communication, outreach, and teamwork.”