NH's superteens: Meet three young women making a difference in New Hampshire

Too often, we hear about the kids who make the news because of the things they’ve done wrong. Petty crime, poor behavior — kids who seem to have gotten lost on the road to doing the right thing. There are a lot of reasons for why things happen the way that they do, but sometimes we forget to take the time to celebrate the kids who are getting it right, the ones who are putting others before themselves and are already making a big difference in the world around them.

For three Granite State teens, seeing loved ones diagnosed with cancer, and in some cases, losing a loved one to cancer provided the impetus to give personally to help others.

Meet Anna Gruchot. This Londonderry young woman may be barely into her teens, yet she has compassion for others and a generous heart that makes her seem more than twice her age. She enjoys giving back, mostly because “I know that I have been blessed with an amazing life and I feel privileged and even obligated to do whatever I can to help others who are less healthy or less fortunate than me.”

This was a mindset that developed early for Anna. When she was in third grade, she learned she could cut her hair to donate to someone who no longer had hair. Anna promptly donated 16 inches of her hair to Locks of Love in memory of her cousin who had died from a brain tumor at just four years old.

Anna, far right, and friends participated in Relay for Life.

“I enjoyed that so much that every other year since then, I have donated my hair to honor the people that I know who have had cancer,” she said.

As a freshman at Londonderry High School, Anna learned that her school participated each year in the Pantene Beautiful Lengths pep rally program. Given that this was a year in which she would once again donate her hair, Anna figured it was perfect timing to get involved and also recruited her mom and grandmother to join her.

“I have learned that with just a small donation of my grown-out hair, I can make a cancer patient’s day much brighter.”

Her freshman year also marked Anna’s first foray into the annual Relay for Life event. When her high school’s class representative group decided to form a relay team, Anna thought it would be a really fun event that could help raise money for a important cause.

“Many people in my family have been affected by cancer and I felt this was the least I could do to try help,” she said. Once again, she invited her grandmother and mom to join her, and the two chaperoned the high school team.

Anna comes from a family that believes in doing for others. Her parents have been involved with the Pan-Mass Challenge bike ride to benefit Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for many years, and five years ago, Anna and her younger brothers rode in a PMC Kids Ride to raise money. She and her brothers have done this every year since, raising funds by asking friends and relatives for donations, doing chores in exchange for donations, and setting up lemonade stands to benefit the nonprofit.

“My brothers and I have enjoyed joining our parents in raising money for a cause that is very important to us, and we get to do a fun bike ride, too,” said Anna. “Other than raising money for cancer, I have also joined my mom for many years doing a church gift drive for less fortunate families at Christmas, which we have all really enjoyed doing.”

For Anna, these experiences have been a way to learn not only about herself, but others as well. “I have learned how much I really love helping others and that I gain as much or more than they do when I am volunteering,” she said. “I also see how appreciative people are when you give even the smallest amount of your time or money to them.”

Savannah Cavanaugh and Angela Valenti before they had their hair cut as part of their Pantene Beautiful Lengths project.

Angela Valenti and Savannah Cavanaugh of Litchfield are recent graduates of Campbell High School. When it came time to start thinking about their senior project, a service project all seniors must complete to graduate, while Savannah was in a pre-calculus class it occurred to her, “I’m going to have a Pantene Beautiful Lengths pep rally for my senior project.”

She said, “It was done. I set my mind to something and I was going to do anything to make sure it happened.” As soon as class was through, Savannah found Angela and asked her if she would want to partner in this massive undertaking.

“I knew that her family, like mine, knew how drastically cancer can change someone. She, of course said yes and we began planning our event even before senior year started.”

From her own experience, Angela knows that cancer not only affects the person that is ill, but everyone in that person’s life as well, and because of that, she has always wanted to help people in any way she can – especially those with cancer.

“I’ve always had long hair, and when I heard about this cause, I didn’t even think twice,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a part of it. It really is an amazing cause.”

Pantene has partnered with the American Cancer Society to create the Beautiful Lengths program, which provides event planning information to create hair donation pep rally events nationwide, organized by volunteers like Angela and Savannah.

To date, Pantene has donates 24,000 free, real-hair wigs to the American Cancer Society’s wig banks, which in turn donate wigs nationwide to cancer patients. The girls had heard of the successful Londonderry High School event and at events at other schools throughout the country, and hoped that other seniors going forward would build upon this inaugural effort each year.

To accomplish this very first event, however, it took a lot of community outreach, along with fundraising and marketing efforts to pull it all together. In late April, 31 students at Campbell High School, surrounded by more than 100 family members and friends, donated their ponytails to the Beautiful Lengths program.

When asked what she learned through this service project, Savannah said, “ What didn’t I learn through this project is the real question. It was the largest spoonful of the real world I ever swallowed.”

She said the lasting life lessons from the year of planning in terms of organization, public speaking, recruiting people to a cause and most all, the confidence gained from successfully seeing it through.

“I learned a lot of leadership skills through this cause. Savannah and I had been planning this for almost a year, and it required a lot of work putting everything together,” Angela said. “I learned a lot of organizational skills as well. It was a learning process, but it was also a lot of fun.”

Both young women have been involved in other volunteer work throughout their high school years. Savannah actively volunteers at the Animal Rescue Veterinary Services, and through that has been participating in the Trap-Neuter-Release with feral cat colonies in New Hampshire.

She’ll be studying biomedical science this fall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, taking a pre-vet track and hopes to one day attend veterinarian school. “I plan on continuing volunteering at ARVS and eventually donating my hair again.”

Angela was involved with many extracurricular activities throughout her time at Campbell High School, including National Honor Society, Environmental Ecology Club, Key Club and more. She volunteered with the Litchfield Recreation Soccer Association and enjoyed helping coach a soccer team of kids, age 4-5, during the spring season.

Fall will find Angela at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, where she’ll be a nursing major. She plans to play soccer in college, and already anticipates a very busy schedule.

“Down the road, I hope to be a pediatric nurse or maybe work in labor and delivery,” she said. “I am very excited for the future and cannot wait to start this new adventure.”

Chances are, whatever adventures any of these three young women get involved in, good things are sure to follow.

Pamme Boutselis is a N.H.-based writer, a content director at Southern New Hampshire University and a serial volunteer. Follow her at pammeboutselis.com or on Twitter @pammeb.

Categories: Teens