For years, the relationship between Nicolette “Nikki” Sepielli and her cousin, “Mary” (who prefers not to have her real name used for this story), was typical of distant relatives. Nikki would see Mary a few times a year, didn’t know exactly where she lived, her phone number or even the color of her car. The only time the two spent together was when they happened to visit their mutual grandmother on the same day.
“I think we were so disconnected because we never really had an opportunity to get close,” reasons Nikki, a sophomore marketing major at Niagara University.
About a week prior to this past Christmas – and more than a decade since Mary first underwent surgery for gynecological cancer – their relationship changed. That was when Nikki found out that Mary had adopted a puppy but that her family wasn’t sold on the idea. They thought it would be too much work for Mary, given her weakened state, the result of an ongoing battle with Ewing’s sarcoma.
Knowing that animals can assist in recovery and fearful that her cousin would be talked out of keeping her new four-legged friend, Nikki gave her a call. The two spoke on the phone for an hour, during which time Mary invited Nikki to come over to meet Rudolph, a Shih Tzu Yorkie. The two have seen each other almost every day since that phone call.
The cousins talk about the fall of 2001, which is when Mary had her first bout with cancer. She underwent a series of surgeries and treatments to have the malignant cells removed and, for a time, was deemed cancer-free.
They discuss the moment in 2009 when Mary was told she had Ewing’s sarcoma, a very rare form of bone cancer that usually develops in the pelvis, femur, humerus, ribs and clavicle of children and adolescents. Mary was 44. The tumor was found near her pelvic bone. Doctors expressed optimism in its removal because it was not in direct contact with the bone. However, while the sarcoma was being removed, the tumor opened inside her body, creating additional complications.
“How she explained it to me,” Nikki reports, “is that a sarcoma is like a plastic Easter egg filled with sprinkles. The egg is the tumor and the sprinkles are the cancer cells. The doctor’s objective is to remove the egg without letting any of the sprinkles out, something that is apparently very difficult to do.”
Nikki has confessed to Mary that there was a time not long ago when she thought the cousins had seen each other for the last time.
“Mary was home from Roswell Park one day,” Nikki recalls. “I could see that she had lost weight and hair, and that her legs were very swollen. Mary dozed off several times and appeared lackadaisical even when she was awake.”
Nikki was scared.
“I was really upset that night because of how horrible she looked. It bothered me because I knew she was a fantastic person,” Nikki says. “Even though Mary was very sick, she would tell me how she could help me with exams, getting my portfolio together or anything else I needed. She would be so weak but offer to make my grandmother coffee and do chores around her house. The little things she would say and do made me realize she was a beautiful woman and didn’t deserve anything she was going through.”
As the cousins have grown closer, Nikki became concerned that Mary’s financial situation was worsening, since she has been unable to work for two years. To Nikki, it didn’t seem fair that someone like Mary, a person dealing with so many health issues, had to struggle with finances as well.
It was time to do something about it.
Nikki confided about her cousin’s situation with assistant accounting professor Christopher Aquino and, with his encouragement, decided to launch a fundraiser called “Recycle for a Cause.”
Its concept is simple. Individuals can contact Nikki (through email or Facebook) and she will pick up their empty bottles and cans. She then donates the return proceeds to her cousin for assistance with grocery and medical bills.
It was the execution of the fundraiser that proved slightly more difficult. Nikki’s parents understandably didn’t want strangers dropping bottles off at their house, nor did they like the idea of piling up discarded recyclables in their garage. For a while, Nikki was keeping the donations in her car until she literally couldn’t see out of her back window.
“I didn’t have much of a plan, I was just going with the flow,” Nikki admits. “I honestly started the fundraiser with very little confidence and was afraid I’d look stupid if it failed.”
Nikki’s original goal was modest. “I was hoping to be able to get a $50 gift card to Tops to help Mary with groceries. I donated the first $30 just in case I didn’t get many bottles.”
She began asking friends via text message if she could have their recyclables. Then, Nikki created a Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/204821992959127/members) and invited everyone she knew to join. She also admits to signing on to her boyfriend’s and brother’s accounts and doing the same with their friends.
As the fundraiser began to evolve, Nikki ordered customized “Recycle for a Cause” bracelets. Each person who donates a garbage bag full of bottles/cans receives one, as does anyone who contributes at least $1. With the help of a friend, she created posters and circulated them around campus and throughout her neighborhood.
Three weeks into the fundraiser, Nikki was in a checkout line at Wegmans. She was telling the cashier why she didn’t want to use her bottle return receipts to pay her bill, which caught the attention of the woman behind her in line. Nikki explained “Recycle for a Cause” to the woman who eventually decided to contribute her bottle return receipts, and expressed a willingness to pass out flyers. It turned out that the woman’s mother died from cancer years ago, partly because she was unable to afford chemotherapy treatments.
Nikki has collected just over $1,000 to date and has now set her sights on raising $5,000 by Labor Day, a far cry from her original goal.
“Watching the numbers grow has been so encouraging because I know that Mary can really use this money,” says Nikki, a North Tonawanda native. “She’ll be able to pay off some bills or even buy some new compression stockings to help her deal with the lymphedema in her abdomen and legs. I know it will make such a difference.”
Aquino notes that, as the fundraiser progresses, he has witnessed a meaningful change in Nikki as well.
“First,” Aquino says, “she has become more engaged in learning and now sees the connection between knowledge and making things happen. Second, the entire ordeal has helped her better emotionally manage the situation. And third, she has actually raised some much needed funds for her cousin. She has been smiling since she started this thing and her confidence is soaring right now.”
Nikki recently sent emails to several restaurants in Western New York, requesting that they donate their empty bottles. Already, she has received positive responses from Whistle Pig and J.D. Gifts in Niagara Falls; Pane’s and Sawyer Creek restaurants in North Tonawanda; and the Fairy Cakes Cupcakery and Mezza Restaurant and Lounge in Buffalo.
Niagara University has helped Nikki as well, but in a different way.
“I went to a different school last year and the bad experience I had there changed my whole outlook on college,” she says. “After being at NU for only a few weeks, I realized that all colleges aren’t like that, and that this place is truly awesome. I have been lucky to have such great professors as Jennifer Jones and Chris Aquino. They encourage me to think outside of the box and do great things. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think this fundraiser would be where it is now.”
Aquino adds, “This kid has amazing energy and persistence. She is also very engaging and has connected with people all over Niagara County through this endeavor. Many people have cried with her as they share their stories of loved ones lost to cancer. She has represented Niagara University, Niagara Falls and herself very well and I believe her story should be told.”
Mary is approaching her recovery day by day. Due to a recent kidney complication, she has difficulty eating and has resultantly lost more weight. Yet she maintains an optimistic outlook, much like her cousin-turned-best friend.
“I completely refuse to accept bad news because I know Mary is okay and she will be here as my cousin, best friend, sister and second mom until the day I die,” Nikki says. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that you have to remind people you love them. Kiss them, hug them and spend time with them because one day you won’t be able to do those things anymore.”
To learn more about “Recycle for a Cause,” please visit http://about.helprecycleforacause.com/.
For more on Niagara University’s business programs, please call 716.286.8050 or go to http://www.niagara.edu/business/.