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June 27, 2011 | Volume 86, Number 18
 

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photo: Mirenda Gwin, a recent graduate of Roanoke Catholic School, with a goat at her family farm. A bull is in the background.Roanoke graduate helps raise money for cancer research

Mirenda Gwin was due to receive a boatload of recognitions at Roanoke Catholic School’s honors assembly in June.

Indeed, she was valedictorian, an Advanced Placement scholar, National Merit Finalist and so on the whole bit.

But the night before the event, Miss Gwin was busy wrangling with her computer to produce a giant-size check for $1,000 to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis for childhood cancer research. The check was to be presented at the assembly in recognition of a group of her RCS schoolmates who participated in a year-long project called “Crafts for a Cure.”

She was the creator and coordinator of Crafts for a Cure.

“She created her own outreach ministry,” explained Kathleen Futrell, RCS assistant principal for upper school. That wasn’t the only thing that set this accomplished 18-year-old apart, Ms. Futrell said, adding, “How many students when asked, “What has been your most rewarding experience?” can respond, ‘birthing a baby goat and saving him and his mother’?”

Mirenda Gwin has been active in the Bedford County 4-H club since she was in third grade. It always has been a family affair, she explained, with her parents attending meetings and workshops with her and her younger brother Matthew, a rising sophomore at RCS.

The family interest in animals started with the father, Mark, who grew up on a farm and is research and development manager for Certified Angus Beef. Before Mirenda was born, Mark and his wife Mary Ann bought a small farm outside Roanoke where they raised ostriches for a while and now have a few head of cattle and some goats. Mirenda’s first memory of animal husbandry was helping count ostrich eggs when she was three.

The family, members of St. Gerard Parish in Roanoke, lives in nearby Vinton, but still maintains their 20-acre spread further out in the country.

“It’s more of a hobby now,” Mirenda said.

Showing animals helped Mirenda overcome her shyness as a child and has given her a great deal of personal confidence.

“I’ve always loved animals and can’t imagine not being involved with them in some way,” she said.

In fact, Mirenda’s hands-on experience with animals has provided her with a perspective that underlies a deep understanding and respect for life that defines her core Christian values.

Birthing the goat certainly was significant. It happened about three years ago when she was at the farm.

“Dixie,” one of their Bohr goats, was in the throes of delivery.

“I noticed she was having some trouble. So I sent my brother to get some gloves, but I didn’t really need them. I just reached in and pulled (the baby goat) out.

“I cleared the placenta and he was gasping for breath, then he gave a little bleat,” she grinned, recalling the moment. “I thought, wow, I just helped bring a new life!”

Upon reflection, Mirenda said, “I felt like he could have died, but it took just one person to save a life. It only takes one decision to stop a life or to bring life into the world — not that that goat grew up to be anything great, but that life itself is sacred.”

So it is no surprise that at the beginning of her senior year, Mirenda would make a decision on how to effectively honor a classmate who had died of cancer a few months earlier.

Anna Lucas passed away in January, 2010. The girls had been friends at RCS from the time they were in elementary grades, and in a class of just 23 members, all the students felt her loss profoundly, Mirenda explained.

“The Lucases are such a great family and I wanted to do something to show we care,” she said.

Another member of their class, Donna Allen, also died of cancer in second grade. The donation to St. Jude’s is in honor of both classmates.

Crafts for a Cure began simply, but Mirenda was encouraged by the enthusiasm of the whole RCS community in donating materials and especially by the commitment of half a dozen students who met every Tuesday after school to make small items to sell.

“Seeing that they were so into it and enjoying it so much really kept us going,” she said.

They made a variety of crafts: Christmas ornaments, bracelets, decorated hair barrettes and flower pots.

Her brother Matthew made wooden jigsaw puzzles.

“Sometimes the guys on the wrestling team would stop by and bead a bracelet before going in to practice,” she recalled.

“At the first of the year I thought the plan might fall through, but I just put up a poster and put out a basket for donations. The response was sizable with students, parents and teachers all helping out, many contributing supplies as well as crafts they’d made themselves. It brought the whole community together.”

The students sold their crafts primarily at two events, Roanoke’s popular “Dickens of a Christmas” festival over three weekends in December and RCS Lenten weekly fish fries.

Mirenda said she had a lot of help from Kris Levy, an RCS parent who serves as a volunteer leader of the school’s Fellowship for Christian Athletes.

A swimmer and track athlete, Mirenda was active in FCA and explained that a speaker at one meeting reinforced her desire to work for the cause of childhood cancer.

“She described her daughter’s treatment for brain cancer. Hearing how difficult it was because there have been so few gains in pediatric cancer treatment, showed how important new research is,” Mirenda said.

“We are donating $1,000,” Mirenda admitted. “Originally we wanted to raise a little money to show we cared. We made little things and sold them for $1 apiece.

“But the main outcome has been community outreach. Our slogan was “Curing kids’ cancer one craft at a time.” Tons of people now have been exposed to what we are doing and to the great need for research in curing pediatric cancer.”

Meanwhile, she will enter the University of Virginia in the fall. Ms. Futrell’s recommendation letter recounting Mirenda’s honors and activities filled two pages.

The new grad said she’s unsure what she’ll study. She has a wide range of interests to go with her academic prowess. She’s been motivated even beyond her parents’ expectations.

“They’ve been supportive but there’s been no pressure from them,” Mirenda explained. “In fact sometimes they’ve suggested I go a little easier. But I love a challenge,” she laughed.

One thing she especially looks forward to is becoming involved in campus ministry, she said.

“I know for a lot of people, college is when they get away from their faith. But I feel like in college I can develop my spiritual life more. I’m planning on keeping God in the lead in my life.”

Beth Derringer, a math teacher who heads RCS campus ministry, said Mirenda already has plenty of experience in that area. She was a leader in school liturgy planning and also led several retreats for her fellow students.

“She has a very deep spirituality, a deep faith and a confidence that is well-earned,” Ms. Derringer said, “and yet she is very humble.”

Having been introduced to UVA Catholic campus ministry by a friend during a campus visit, Mirenda said, “Everyone was so genuine, and I’m looking for friends who will help keep me strong in my faith while keeping my focus on academics. I think of college as a time when you are trying to grow into the person you want to be.”

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