It could be the plot of the next great Hollywood blockbuster. A young man from New Jersey is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. He and his family exhaust every imaginable resource in an attempt to find his match. Since bone marrow matches often occur in those with similar ancestry and he is Jewish, the family conducted extensive genetic research, running drives internationally. Just as his family gave up, they had one last drive. The last person at the last drive turned out to be his match. The young man receives transplant and beats death. Just to spite it further, he builds an international organization and helps others find their match for the next 25 years, enabling thousands of people to survive and thrive just as he did.
This truth-is-stranger-than-fiction is Jay Feinberg’s real life story. Once Jay found his match, his family knew they could not rest while other families continued to go through the same heartbreaking process. Gift of Life was founded in 1991 on the mission that there should be a match for anyone who needs to find one.
Nicholas Hudson was swabbed in 2007 and donated to a 4-year-old boy battling leukemia in 2008. This jump started his involvement and volunteering with Gift of Life, and he eventually joined them in an official capacity in 2012, doing community engagement and recruiting potential donors on college campuses. When Hudson approached Feinberg and the Gift of Life staff with the idea for a dedicated on-campus recruitment program, they knew this was something that had tremendous potential. With a non-profit grant from LinkedIn, Gift of Life recruited its first eight ambassadors in 2014. The idea behind the Campus Ambassador Program, or CAP, is that the Gift of Life representative is a fellow college student, who recruits his or her peers, organizes the drives with the student life officials and acts as Gift of Life’s “boots on the ground,” as Hudson calls it. In addition to the fact that 90% of transplants come from donors between the ages of 18 and 45, college students will be in the registry for decades to come—until age 61, making them a great population to recruit.
The campus ambassadors come from all over the country, and are spread throughout different colleges. Gali Sadek, of Teaneck and a Ma’ayanot graduate, found herself in Barnard College, filling out an online profile that generates appropriate jobs and internships on campus. When the Campus Ambassador Program came back as an option, Sadek was intrigued. After attending the Gift of Life symposium, she came back motivated and ready to recruit donors. But first she recruited her friend, Binyamin Zirman, a fellow Teaneck native and TABC alumnus to serve as an ambassador at Yeshiva College.
Sadek and Zirman have thrown themselves into this cause full force. Together they ran drives all over New York and New Jersey, including drives at their respective alma maters. At the 2016 Salute to Israel Parade they were not only on the Gift of Life float, but they also worked the swabbing booth, entering as many people as possible into the registry. “Being a campus ambassador really made me realize how far one person’s help can reach,” Sadek explained. “When you hear someone is sick, everyone feels so powerless, but all of a sudden this gives you something you can do to help them.”
Zirman further explained this benefit as part of a necessary antidote to some of the sentiments experienced on campus. “College itself is centered on self: my grades, my dorm, my internships and so on,” he related. “For this, you give yourself up to the activity. You are doing this because of how you can impact the world outside yourself.”
Sadek actually described the feeling of lacking she had after settling into her dorm and navigating the maze of classes in the beginning of the school term. It was not until she got involved with Gift of Life that she realized that what was missing in her life was the action of giving. Sadek credits her upbringing with instilling the importance of chessed in her. “In many schools, but especially in the yeshiva system, chesed is prioritized,” she recounted. Being part of Gift of Life’s Campus Ambassador Program also forced her to act outside of her comfort zone. She described feeling “pushy” when asking facilities for rooms and space to run drives, but soon found that she was able to put her reticence to the side in order to focus on what she needed and why.
Sadek and Zirman are truly standout ambassadors. In order to join the program, an application process must be completed, and applicants must meet certain requirements academically, socially and in an extracurricular capacity. As Campus Ambassador Manager and founder Nicholas Hudson recently remarked about these two individuals, “Both Binyamin and Gali have been incredible advocates for the Gift of Life mission. Whether spreading the word at their own schools in New York City or collaborating back in their New Jersey home community, they have been an outstanding example of the power of students to—quite literally—save lives.”
But the New Jersey-Gift of Life connection does not end with Sadek and Zirman. Gift of Life recently launched an international ambassador program, appointing Ma’ayanot graduate and Highland Park native Rebecca Meiner as their ambassador at Hebrew University in Israel. “Working with Gift of Life is an incredible experience and I genuinely feel that I need to spread its message and mission to everyone,” expressed Meiner. “It is so saddening to hear of a child, father, sister or friend that is waiting for a bone marrow transplant and just can’t find a match. What will be one day of a donor’s life will be a lifetime for the recipient who will have a second chance to live. If we can save each other and we have the means to do so, I believe it is our obligation.” Gift of Life is thrilled to have expanded to Israel. “This will enable the program to reach out in a new way to the many students who study abroad in Israel,” they said.
Before the Campus Ambassador Program, Gift of Life recruited an average of 2,000 to 3,000 students from college campuses annually. According to Hudson, they now have 125 ambassadors across the country, and last year recruited 15,000 new donors from college campuses. Over 35 matches have already been facilitated from these drives. “All of this has made it clear that young people across the country can—and will—save lives,” said Hudson. “Thanks to this program, drives are being run on campuses all over the country by the people who know them best: students. And thanks to them, patients across the globe are getting a second chance at life.”
By Jenny Gans