Teenager makes a big impact with community fundraiser

In 2017 when Hamilton teenager Kate Rokoss was in grade 10 at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School, she experienced a tragedy that no young person should have to deal with. Her father, who had been living with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – a disease that causes scaring of the lungs – passed away after a lung transplant that was required due to his illness.

Kate quietly grieved her loss, not sharing much with her classmates or teachers – until later in 2017 after her health care teacher taught a lesson about organ donation and she was moved by a similar experience in her community. It was then that Kate realized she wasn’t alone and decided to open up to her teachers and classmates about her father’s story.

Kate and her father in hospital. (Photo courtesy of Kate Rokoss)
Kate and her father at the hospital. (Photo courtesy of Kate Rokoss)

“The support I received was beyond what I ever anticipated,” says Kate. “With such a positive reaction, I knew there was a lot more that I could do.”

To educate and raise awareness, she started having conversations with students in the school. Then, with her teacher’s help, brought in a priest to meet with students and reassure them that organ donation is widely accepted within the Catholic religion and many others, despite perceived biases that religious communities may be against it.

From there, Kate shifted her focus to include fundraising. Her father received his transplant at the Ajmera Transplant Centre at University Health Network (UHN), and Kate decided that the funds should be donated back to UHN, which is home to the largest and most successful transplant program in Canada, and has achieved many world-firsts within the field of organ transplant research.

“I’ve learned that advocacy is only one part of the puzzle,” says Kate. “I hope the funds we’ve raised will contribute to research that will steer us in right direction and expand the pool of organs available for transplant.”

They held bake sales and raffles at the school, and collaborated with the Trillium Gift of Life Network to sell green t-shirts inspiring people to register as organ donors. The green shirts are in honour of Logan Boulet, Humboldt Bronco hockey player who became an organ donor before passing away in the tragic 2018 crash of the Bronco’s team bus in Saskatchewan.

 “The success of the shirt sales were a physical indicator of how much support we had and how much the community was embracing my dad’s story,” recalls Kate.

Her campaign culminated in a school-wide assembly. They brought in a doctor and transplant co-ordinator to explain the organ donation process, and even a Humboldt Broncos coach came to speak to the school, bringing a letter of support and gratitude from Logan Boulet’s parents.

Today, Kate is in university and studying for her MCAT exam. While medicine was always a goal of hers, she now hopes to one day work within the field of organ transplant. She also works as a student researcher, assisting Dr. Marcelo Cypel, thoracic surgeon and Surgical Director of UHN’s Ajmera Transplant Centre with a lung transplant research project.

While Kate is an inspiration, she is also proof that anyone can make an impact in their community for a cause they care about. For more information, along with tools and resources to start your own fundraiser, visit UHNfoundation.ca/fundraise.

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