Two high school juniors with a passion for having fun, crushing challenges and making their mark in the fight against cancer, recently raised more than $46,000 for research on the deadly disease.
Mary Elizabeth Allen, 16, of Miami Country Day School, and Christopher Rodriguez, 17, of St. Thomas Aquinas, friends since childhood, gathered 40 of their friends to promote, fund raise, construct and star in an “Insane Asylum Haunted House.” It was a grassroots campaign to benefit the Dolphins Cancer Challenge, a fundraiser for cancer research with all proceeds benefiting the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Sylvester is South Florida’s only academic-based cancer center. The fundraising money will be used for research including analyzing the makeup of each patient’s cancer, determining what factors are driving its growth and learning what will prevent it from continuing to grow and spread.
Rodriguez hosted bake sales at his high school to get the word out about the Halloween project and to raise seed money for materials. Allen told the administration at her school how she and her friends were raising money for cancer research, and the school donated $2,000 to the cause.
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“That was a really big deal for us, because that’s like the amount that we fundraised last year,” Allen said. Their initial goal for this year was $10,000. Both had grandfathers who had cancer and have a friend who is a cancer survivor.
Last year, the duo raised $1,800 in their first haunted house endeavor, which was more spontaneous than planned. Allen’s father Matt Allen, who serves on the board of the Dolphins Cancer Challenge, advised them to plan ahead this year and expand their fundraising efforts. He offered to match whatever they raised. A friend of the family agreed to do the same. Allen hosted a Dolphins Cancer Challenge fundraising event at his home just before Halloween. Most of the money was raised that night.
Friends of Rodriguez and Allen dressed up as patients of the “Insane Asylum Haunted House,” built in Allen’s backyard in Miami Shores. The teenagers and their friends wore blood-soaked shirts (red paint) and gory face makeup, and brandished plastic machetes and chainsaws. Rodriguez’s father, who owns a construction company, donated plywood to make the asylum. Other parents purchased props from Party City.
They got the word out about their fundraising project, dubbed “Scaring for Caring,” with posters, fliers, social media, and word of mouth.
“It was like a maze, or a labyrinth,” Rodriguez said of the asylum. “We had mirrors, secret holes in the walls that people would come out of, fake body parts, and mannequins. … It was about a 3 1/2-minute walk-through.” More than 1,000 people entered, he said.
They’re already planning the theme for next year’s haunted house, to go out with a bang before they depart for college. They’re hoping someone will continue the tradition while raising money for an important cause.
“When we were thinking about it last year — who we should donate our money to,” Mary Elizabeth Allen said. “We thought of the DCC because all of the money goes to Sylvester.”
In a letter to Dolphins Cancer Challenge donors, Stephen D. Nimer, director of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, explained how funds raised through the organization could help Sylvester get designated as a National Cancer Institute. The designation would mean “greater access to cutting-edge cancer treatments, clinical trials and research to develop more effective therapies in order to reduce the burden of cancer in our community.”
“Florida has the second-highest number of cancer cases in the nation,” Nimer wrote. “Since I arrived, we have recruited more than 40 physicians and scientists to bolster our clinical care and to conduct potentially lifesaving clinical and laboratory research. This growth was made possible by your participation in the DCC. Your support is allowing us to make great strides and take monumental steps forward to grow Sylvester for the benefit of our community.”
“I’m so proud of them because of the effort that they put forward,” says Matt Allen. “I can’t tell you all the hours the kids put in, hundreds of hours. It was a big effort. They’re learning the biggest lesson in life, which is about giving back to others.”
The haunted house was just one of the teenagers’ endeavors to help combat cancer and support their community. They’ve also participated in Dolphins Cancer Challenge bike rides and 5k races, with registration fees donated to Sylvester. They and their friends who helped with the haunted house will participate in a 5k walk/run and cycling rides hosted by the challenge in February at Sun Life Stadium.
In all, more than $11.5 million has been raised for Sylvester through the Dolphins Cancer Challenge since the organization’s inception in 2005 — an initiative of the Miami Dolphins Foundation.
“This experience helped us create a budget, helped us become leaders, and we learned marketing skills,” Mary Elizabeth Allen said. “It has really shaped us.”