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Thomas Martino
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Published on April 2, 2014

This is a guest post by Gabriella Forster for Student Stories. 

I never thought I would work at The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), but here I am today.

After graduating from St. Mary’s College of California with a Bachelor’s degree in International Area Studies and a minor in French, I imagined myself working for an international and most likely, French company where I would travel the world and use my language skills. As my job searches became unsuccessful, word of mouth led to an opening at the San Francisco Greater Bay Area Chapter of LLS. Although I had no prior experience working or interning with a non-profit organization, and the Campaign Assistant position I applied for was very different from my original career ideas after college, I knew it would be a good experience. Working in a corporate office for a sincere cause seems almost like an omen to me, especially since this cause has marked the beginning and now the end of my college experience.
To explain myself further, my father became suddenly ill as I graduated high school and entered my first year of college.  It was frightening to watch a man whom I thought to be the strongest and most courageous, feeling so frustrated. After many different doctors and specialists, various diagnoses, blood tests, and endless confusion, my father was finally diagnosed with a rare disease called amyloidosis.

This disease can affect different organ systems in the body by creating deposits of abnormal proteins called amyloid. Amyloidosis traveled through my father’s circulatory system, through his blood, and went straight for his heart. He was diagnosed in October of 2010 and with few options for such an abstract disease, he took a chance on experimental chemotherapy. It was only four months after he received a diagnosis that his life on earth came to an end.

Just under a year later, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with leukemia. She was fairly young for a grandmother and always so active, so again it came as a shock when I found myself once more in the same Stanford University hospital, and the same doctor’s office I had visited with my father. As the doctor delivered another dismal speech, the pain, fear, and helplessness set in again for my family.

So you see, working at LLS felt like a sign, since blood related diseases had affected my life in a profoundly awful way as I entered college, and have now helped to start my life after school in a positive way. As a Campaign Assistant for the School and Youth programs, I have talked with hundreds of other educators and parents who have known a friend, a family member, a coworker, or who even battle blood cancers themselves. Even though they may not know my story with blood diseases, I can commiserate and understand when they share their Caring Bridge blogs for their children with leukemia, write me about their friends who they fundraise in honor and support of, and when they talk to me about their own battles with myeloma.

In my position, I learned to get over a fear of making call after call to hundreds of schools—some made to kind and patient school secretaries, while others ended only in a dial tone. Spreadsheets and data entry became everyday tasks and organization turned out to be key. I have been asked to step up and give presentations at schools with two days notice, and have realized overall that flexibility, willingness to learn and do, and showing enthusiasm, as well as interest for your what you do within a company can all be considered the best attributes to display in any career field.

I find it amazing how often and how much people have been willing to share their stories with me, even in my first year of work, and in turn, how much they have believed in me, and others who work with LLS to fulfill the mission of the company. In the past six months I have worked at LLS, it has become clear that the mission to help blood cancer patients live better, longer lives is not just a string of words, but a promise comes true with each new drug approved by the FDA and passed in Congress, with new services that LLS creates to help subsidize treatments, and more stories of survival and longevity that are being shared.

In the end, my first job was unexpected and sometimes challenging, but it has taught me new skills and has reinforced others that will increase in value as my career path unfolds. My advice to others is to keep going and to keep trying new things, while in college and long after. The first job is not always what we expect or maybe even what we desire, but it might be just what we need to develop the skills that will propel us forward.

 About the Author:

Gabriella Forster works at the Greater Bay Area Chapter of The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as a Campaign Assistant for School and Youth programs. As a graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California in 2013, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in International Area Studies with a minor in French. Currently, she resides in San Francisco with her sister and enjoys exploring the city, running, traveling, and going to concerts.

Thomas Martino

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