What does “success” look like?

Last weekend, eight students and I pulled an all-nighter for our advertising program’s annual PhilADthropy event. Our client was The Mystic Force Foundation, founded by Dr. Steven and Sylvia Vanni, who lost their beautiful son, Sal, to neuroblastoma on March 19, 2011 at age 7.

The goal was to create a campaign to turn Miami gold next September in honor of childhood cancer awareness month. Sylvia proved to be the perfect client. After all, if PhilADthropy is truly an all-nighter for the greater good, then how much more good can we do than to raise awareness of childhood cancer? How much more “perfect” a client could I have gotten, given my strong desire to do my part to help fund research into cures?

When Sylvia addressed my students in the client briefing, they were faced with childhood cancer for the first time. Like most people, they all knew childhood cancer existed, but none had any knowledge of what it truly means to lose a child to this awful beast. After they met with and spoke to Sylvia, they realized that their hearts and their souls would be forever changed if they worked on this campaign.

I gave them the chance to back out. I told them that if this was too difficult or sad for them to face, I could easily arrange to put them onto another team. I fully expected at least one of them to take me up on my offer.

Instead, with tears in their eyes and fire in their hearts, they said they were honored to work on this campaign. None of them wanted out. They wanted to turn Miami gold. For Sal and for every other child lost or fighting this currently incurable disease.

So we delved into the world of childhood cancer. I made our team’s copywriter and lead art director read the gut-wrenching journal entries of Sylvia Vanni, Erin Santos, and Maya Thompson…the ones each of them wrote when they described the death of their children. I watched as tears poured down my students’ cheeks, as they faced the sheer agony of these three women whose children were killed by cancer. I watched them take every word, every image used in this campaign seriously. I watched them define what gold truly means, and how it can change the way the world sees childhood cancer.

These students are forever altered. They will never again see childhood cancer as a bunch of bald, smiling faces. They will see Sal Vanni. Isabella Santos. Ronan Thompson. Just three of the too many children eaten alive by the bastard that is neuroblastoma. They have seen the pages and pages and pages of names of children lost or fighting childhood cancer. It’s etched into their minds and into their hearts. They now know two undeniable things about childhood cancer: It’s not rare and it needs a cure.

Is that success? At some level, yes. This experience showed me that when people–even so-called self-absorbed college students–are faced with the reality of childhood cancer, they can’t turn away. They can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

They can’t forget the agony that lives permanently in the eyes of Sylvia Vanni.

And I’m certain that each of them, in their own way, will do their part. Instead of scrolling through my incessant Facebook posts about childhood cancer, I bet they’ll read and share them. Instead of passing by the opportunity to donate to organizations like St. Jude, St. Baldricks, or The Mystic Force Foundation, they instead will donate.

And next September, when they see gold ribbons and floating lanterns and all that is gold around the city of Miami, they will take pride in their part in making it happen.

And when cures are finally found, they will know that in some small way, they helped make that miracle possible.

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