Youngest Jefferson Award winner propelled by personal battle

By Tara Jones -

LIMA — Lauren Cunningham is the youngest of this year’s Jefferson Awards winners, and her advocacy hits close to home.

Cunningham, 14, was diagnosed with leukemia in May 2014. Instead of letting that knock her down, she used it as an opportunity to help others in similar situations.

“There were a lot of times where I did feel bad for myself,” Cunningham said. “But I realized I can’t do anything about it, so I might as well try to help other people to make their situation better.”

Cunningham has been in remission since August 2014, but continues her mission through a variety of ways. That year, Cunningham teamed up with the American Red Cross to host Team Lauren blood drives, through which she has collected about 700 to 800 units of blood according to Derek Stemen, Executive Director of the West Central Ohio Red Cross.

“When I think of Lauren, I think of a hero,” Stemen said. “She battled leukemia herself as a young child, and during that time — the thing I think is so amazing — is that it’s such a battle at that time, but she didn’t think about herself. She immediately started thinking about others. She approached us about doing blood drives and has been doing them for years now.”

Cunningham also collects pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald House and sends cards to other children battling illnesses in Nationwide Children’s Hospital, both in Columbus.

“I chose to do the cards because when I was in the hospital, it was encouraging to get it even if it was from someone I didn’t know,” Cunningham said. “And I do the pop tabs because my dad was at the McDonald house for about four weeks during my first stay. The pop tabs help pay the electricity bill, and we started collecting those when I was in the hospital, but we bring them more often now.”

Cunningham was nominated by Amber Martin, a family friend for about 12 years.

“I think she truly appreciated the support that she received from the whole community,” Martin said. “She saw that support and how much it encouraged her and then paid it forward by making sure she helped those that were in her shoes or are in her shoes.”

Martin said she sees Cunningham making this a lasting effort.

“I don’t see this slowing down,” Martin said of Cunningham’s initiatives. “This will be a lifelong mission for her. She will advocate for children and cancer patients everywhere throughout her life. She has the drive to continue on to be that voice and educate. I really think she’s unstoppable. I don’t really know where she will end up, but we are all watching and anticipating amazing things.”

Cunningham echoed that statement.

“I don’t see myself stopping,” she said. “I think I just want to continue to give back even if I’m still not going through it. I still want to continue to give back and help those families out.”

By Tara Jones

Reach Tara Jones at 567-242-0511.

Reach Tara Jones at 567-242-0511.

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