“By using what I’ve had and how I’ve felt, I’m able to console other people who are going through my footsteps,” says Centreville High School junior Valerie Nguyen.
Last October, Nguyen’s sister, Cecilia, died at the age of 13 after struggling for nearly four years with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
“She wanted everyone to treat her normally, not like any special child,” Nguyen says of her sister. She describes Cecilia as “really intelligent and very humble” and says she enjoyed crafting and sharing the company of her family, friends and their dog, Oreo.
Nguyen, 16, has always been interested in helping others. “‘If you’re having a bad day,’ my mom always told me, ‘there’s someone out there who has it worse,’” she says.
After Cecilia’s diagnosis, Nguyen attended a BRASS (Brothers and Sisters) camp sponsored by Special Love, an organization that supports children with cancer as well as their families. Nguyen found solace there and was inspired by the activism.
“When I went to camp, I realized the magic of how many people volunteered and how powerful it was because these counselors were siblings themselves,” Nguyen says. “I was like, ‘I can’t wait to be a counselor—why don’t I start to make a difference in my own community?’”
In 2015, Nguyen turned to her former physical education teacher and asked if she would sponsor a new club: Wildcats vs. Cancer. Since then, the club has attracted about 110 members, collected more than 1,000 items and volunteered more than 600 hours to support families affected by childhood cancer. The club has worked with the D.C. Candlelighters, the Chantilly Youth Association, Kids v. Cancer and StillBrave. On June 10, Wildcats vs. Cancer is launching its first Festival to Fight Cancer, which will feature a charity run/walk and will benefit Special Love.
The club has been a vital force in Nguyen’s life. “It’s really helped me cope,” she says. “This is what I want to do as a profession because it brings me so much joy. It’s a hobby; I don’t even record volunteer hours because it’s fun.”
Nguyen is toying with the idea of pursuing nursing or pediatric oncology in college. For now, she is focused on expanding the club and thanking key people in her life, often with letters.
“I really take time to express my gratitude because people need to know how appreciated they are before time is too late and you forget to tell them.”