Giving back to a mentor


Mella Bettag

Maya Bhandari fundraises for cancer campaign.

Junior Maya Bhandari hears her phone ringing and notices that she is receiving an unanticipated phone call. As she raises the phone to her ear, she hears crying, and she quickly learns that after fighting breast cancer for a year, her basketball coach and mentor, Karen Hadley, has only a few days to live. As the words sink in, Bhandari sits in shock, trying to digest the situation. Only two days later, she receives another phone call that reveals the daunting, but inevitable news: her mentor has passed away. 

What started as two tragic conversations over the phone eventually gave Bhandari the motivation to do something in Hadley’s honor. In 2021, she started a campaign to raise money for cancer patients. Through commitment, hard work, and drive, she has been able to create a team of students, fundraise thousands of dollars, learn new skills, and change the lives of others. 

In 6th grade, Bhandari met Hadley, an influential mentor that helped her become the person she is today. Hadley was the athletic director, coach, and PE teacher at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School. According to Bhandari, her role went beyond physical education, and Hadley’s unwavering devotion to her students was undeniable both inside and out of the classroom. Hadley played a big role in Bhandari’s life, talking her through challenges, encouraging her as a multi-sport athlete, and helping Bhandari develop leadership skills. “She was such a fundamental guidance in my life,” Bhandari said. 

After Hadley succumbed to breast cancer, Bhandari had trouble taking in the news. As Bhandari reflected on the impact and inspiration Hadley gave her, she instantly knew she wanted to do something good in her honor. Although she wouldn’t be able to directly help Hadley anymore, she knew there were many other struggling cancer patients whom she could help, and she began planning.

Although she wouldn’t be able to directly help Hadley anymore, she knew there were many other struggling cancer patients whom she could help, and she began planning.

In January 2021, Bhandari’s new drive pushed her to participate in the Student of the Year Campaign initiative in partnership with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), a campaign that donates billions of dollars every year to all types of cancer research, treatments, and financial aid for patients. Bhandari formed a team of 12 students, including some of Hadley’s former students, people impacted by someone they knew having cancer, and people who just wanted to support the cause. Bhandari’s team set a goal of raising $25,000 dollars, and started the long, difficult process of reaching out, asking people for money, and raising awareness about cancer. “In the beginning, I was like, ‘This is so awkward,’” Bhandari said. “I felt bad asking people for money.” The process of reaching out to friends and strangers was intimidating at first, but it got easier as Bhandari persisted. “We sent out letters to people, I think 200, and then all of us sent out a ton of emails. We texted people. I got it into the Cardinal Blasts,” Bhandari explained. 

There were a few challenges from this LLS campaign, but Bhandari and her team found solutions quickly. During the fourth week of Bhandari’s fundraiser, Bhandari realized she had contacted everyone she knew and was running out of people to ask for money. So, Bhandari’s team met up and brainstormed other ideas of how they could ensure success for the LLS campaign, including reaching out to companies to partner with, and using social media as a platform for outreach. 

As continuous hard work was put into the campaign, it started paying off, with over 100 people donating to the campaign. “So far, we’ve raised about $20,000 dollars, which is insane, like insane insane,” Bhandari said. Bhandari’s campaign has also been flooded with positive responses and words of encouragement from friends, teachers, classmates, and even people she doesn’t personally know. All the support allowed her to keep pushing forward, and reminded her of the difference she is making for numerous cancer patients. 

Bhandari’s campaign experience has been difficult, but rewarding because she learned several skills and helped cancer patients. “It’s been such a wonderful journey for sure,” Bhandari said. She feels she has learned a lot from this fundraising experience, including managing a team and learning how to set up a fundraiser. Thinking back to why she wanted to start this campaign in the first place allowed her to reflect on the millions of people affected by cancer. “I feel like we all know somebody who has cancer, which is so sad,” Bhandari said. “And so raising money for this cause, I just want to help people. That’s my goal in life, it’s to help people.”