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Relay for Life turns away Libertyville student who doesn’t meet fundraising goal

Susan Zottwo-time breast cancer survivor upset thher 18 year old swas prevented from walking American Cancer Society's Relay for Life

Susan Zotto, a two-time breast cancer survivor, upset that her 18 year old son was prevented from walking the in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life because he hadn't raised enough money. | Rob Dicker ~ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 19, 2013 12:40PM

Susan Zotto doesn’t want anyone else to go through what her son experienced at a charity race.

Her teenage son Anthony, 18, wasn’t allowed to participate in a local Relay for Life event for not meeting the minimum fundraising requirement.

As the signature event of the American Cancer Society, Relay for Life is dedicated to expanding awareness and raising money to fight cancer. Organized on a local level by groups across the country, teams consisting of family members, coworkers, and friends camp out overnight and take turns walking the track.

Fundraising expectations vary by event and group, though student-focused fundraisers are held to a different standard, according to Amy Jo Steinbruecker, an American Cancer Society spokeswoman for suburban Chicago.

“We’re not expecting parents to write a check for $100,” Steinbruecker said. “That’s not the point.”

She said, in order to be consistent and fair to other students, Relay for Life organizers must stick to the per-participant fundraising goal.

That was the problem Anthony Zotto ran into when the Libertyville High School student attempted to join friends at the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Green Oaks, Libertyville, Mundelein & Vernon Hills walkathon on April 13.

Earlier that day, Zotto asked his mom if he could dip into a fund set aside for college to give $100 toward the event. She told him it would be better to save his money and, instead, she would contribute $25.

Zotto said her family, like many others, had fallen on tough economic times and the gift was the most they could afford. So she was surprised to see her son returned home 30 minutes later.

“They said I could donate the rest of the money (on-site), but I didn’t have it so I just left.” Anthony said. “It was going to be fun, but what can you do?”

Susan Zotto was upset, but said she didn’t want to risk embarrassing her son by confronting organizers at the event.

Instead, she called the American Cancer Society and spoke with three executives at the regional, state and ∑national levels: all three stood by the fundraising policy and the decision to reject the teen’s entry, she said.

Zotto found the situation fundamentally wrong.

“The message you send to someone is that $25 isn’t good enough,” she said. “And they’re asking these kids to raise this money all over the country.”

The fact that she is a two-time survivor of breast cancer added insult to injury. But Zotto said she’s not looking for pity or restitution.

Rather, “I hate to see this ever happen to another young adult,” she said.

In her eyes, the bottom-line appeared more important than the cause.

Steinbruecker said that isn’t the case at all.

Rather, the educational component of student Relay for Life fundraisers is just as meaningful as honoring those stricken by cancer.

“We’re teaching kids about fundraising and why they’re there. It’s not just about coming to spend the night and have a party,” Steinbruecker said.

Students who participate are encouraged to collect money in a multitude of ways — like hosting car washes, for example – from a variety of people.

As Steinbruecker explained, “If you have to make an exception for one, you have to make one for another.”

The American Cancer Society does not have a standardized participation fee for Relay for Life events, though there is a push to have all Illinois schools make $100 the starting point, Steinbruecker said.

Elsewhere colleges ask participants to pay $20, $10 and, in some instances, $1.

Steinbruecker said she was not sure how Relay For Life of GLMV Youth determined its $100 minimum.

Either way, more than 500 youth met the goal and participated, she said. As of April 15, the event garnered nearly $70,000 for the cancer organization.

Headquartered in Atlanta, the American Cancer Society is $1 billion-a-year operation with more than 900 local offices nationwide.

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