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Clover students unite to hold Gift of Life event

Lake Wylie area students are teaming up to give one woman the gift of life, and hopefully help others in the future.

Sean Elder, 16, a junior at Clover High School and member of Choraliers, spent time with family in Michigan this summer including his cousin, Jessica Mellema, who was diagnosed last year with a rare ovarian cancer.

Mellema, 30, received traditional and experimental radiation treatments, but it didn’t work. She signed up for an experimental stem cell treatment, just the second person in the world to try it, said Elder’s mother Chris.

The treatment is working, she said, but insurance won’t cover the $750,000 cost because it’s experimental. That’s when Sean thought up a benefit and the idea snowballed. The Gift of Life fundraiser will be held Dec. 19 at the Red Fez Shrine Club in Steele Creek on Lake Wylie.

“It’s everybody coming together,” Chris Elder said. “The majority of this has been planned and run by kids in the community.”

“It’s moved us in a very beautiful way,” she said.

Almost 20 students, athletes and singers from Clover High and Gaston Day School, where Sean’s sister Kathryn attends, began meeting to plan an event.

“A lot of kids’ reaction was they couldn’t believe if you have insurance you could be denied coverage for treatment,” said Shanaya Andres, 16, a varsity volleyball player at Gaston Day. “This is not something anyone really thought could happen. Everyone just wanted to help.”

They’ve secured scores of silent auction and raffle prizes, three dozen corporate or community sponsors, a band and the full Choraliers cast of carolers. They’ve sold about 125 tickets at $30 each.

“This is my first fundraiser, and it’s a lot of work but a lot of people have pulled together to help make it easier,” Sean Elder said. “I think it’s going to be a really great night.”

Andres, who also volunteers with the River Hills Community Church youth group and Clover Area Assistance Center, said the community responded even though beneficiary lives in Michigan.

“People have been very supportive and honestly no one even asked me where Jessica was from,” Andres said. “They just wanted to help.”

The Elders and other extended family made a $570,000 deposit in August toward the treatment. The fundraiser will make a small dent in the overall cost, but the family hopes it will help toward a bigger impact. The rarity of Mellema’s cancer and experimental nature of her treatment mean her recovery could be tied to a brighter future for others.

“We’ve got to keep her alive,” said Chris Elder. “This could become a standard of care for patients of this aggressive form of ovarian cancer.”

That message, Sean Elder said, is resonating.

“I would tell them that every dollar we raise not only helps Jessica receive this experimental stem cell treatment but also that other young women could one day benefit from the study of this disease,” he said. “By helping Jessica we are helping doctors learn more about how to treat young women with small cell ovarian cancer.”