Erika Rech and Mike Ruane, 18
Hometown: Middletown, New Jersey
Family: Erica: mom, Carol; dad, Wolfgang; sister, Allie, 22. Mike: mom, Marianne; dad, John; sisters, Jenny, 23, and Maggie, 21; brothers, John, 21, and Brian, 13.
Erika Rech felt like a typical high school freshman, busy with classes, friends and soccer practice. But all that changed in October 2006, when her mother was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Just six months later, Erika's two aunts learned they had the same disease. With their lives suddenly dominated by discussions of operations, chemo and medical bills, Erika and her cousin Mike Ruane decided to help.
First they joined the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and raised $1,000, which was then given to an organization devoted to finding a cure. But they weren't satisfied—they wanted to help women right now. "My mom told me so many stories about patients who were stressed about paying medical bills on top of heating and electric costs," says Erika. "We felt they shouldn't have to worry about that burden."
In order to financially assist breast cancer victims in their community, Erika and Mike launched Breast Friends Forever (BFF) in December 2007. They've raised more than $140,000 through direct donations; by selling $20 T-shirts, and $1 bracelets and candy at local high schools and churches; and by holding an annual fundraising gala. Every cent goes to helping women with breast cancer pay household bills, rent, co-pays and transportation to and from medical appointments so that they can focus not on their mounting debt, but on getting healthy. After receiving patient recommendations from local oncologists and hospitals, BFF determines how much money to dole out on a case-by-case basis. "We address the most pressing needs and give accordingly," explains Erika.
Both teens will stay involved with BFF from college, though they've passed daily operations to their younger cousin. They hope to expand by helping volunteers across the country set up chapters. "There are women all over the nation in similar situations, and they need and deserve our support," Erika says.
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Originally published in the October 17, 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.