WEST ORANGE, NJ - Students and faculty of West Orange’s Golda Och Academy laced up their sneakers and joined together on May 29 for the 22nd annual “Walk for Life” to benefit the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation—one of the nation’s public bone marrow registries that helps find children and adults find donors for bone marrow transplants. While the event is organized by the school’s National Honor Society (NHS), Walk for Life is a school-wide event, with fundraising efforts from all grades and walks at both the Lower and Upper Schools.

To prepare for the event at the Lower School, the fifth grade Va’ad (student council) met with Navah Kogen, GOA’s coordinator for experiential education at the Upper School, who spoke about the meaning of the walk and what the funds are used for. The fifth graders then wrote letters to the rest of the elementary school students explaining the walk and the importance of raising money for it.

At the Upper School, GOA alumnus Jon Cohen (Class of 2007) met with students prior to the walk to share his experience as a bone marrow donor. After screening a short video detailing Gift of Life’s work and its particular importance to the Jewish community, Cohen shared his story of getting swabbed at a Hillel donor drive, while attending Rutgers University, and being confirmed as a match several years later. Cohen was flown to Washington D.C. for the donation procedure and assured the students his recipient is in good health.

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“Walk for Life is an extremely moving event in our school,” said junior Mira Blecherman, president of NHS. “For one afternoon our whole community walks to raise money and awareness for the Gift of Life foundation and to bring more Jews into the blood marrow donation system. Walk for Life is NHS's biggest fundraiser, and we are extremely grateful for the enthusiasm and pride with which it is received at GOA.” 

Walk for Life at GOA initially began when its founder and then West Orange-resident Jay Feinberg was diagnosed with Leukemia. According to Rabbi Joyce Raynor, GOA’s head of school, Feinberg was told the best chance of finding a match was from the Ashkenazi Jewish community. Thus, the Feinberg family contacted the school (among other local organizations) asking if students would participate in a walk on a Sunday to raise money to offset the costs of donor screening. Since Raynor couldn’t make a walk mandatory on a weekend, she agreed to have a walk on a school day.

“It was incredible how his entire family mobilized,” said Raynor, who recalls the year that Feinber’s mother came to thank the students. “I will never forget that moment,” she said. “The room was packed with students and faculty, but when I introduced Mrs. Feinberg there was instant silence. The kids knew they were doing something important. They were involved in saving a life.”

Feinberg said, “We are so proud to partner with Golda Och Academy for over 20 years. When I was first diagnosed, the students banded together to organize the Walk for Life to raise money and help find my matching donor. Once my donor was found and I received a successful transplant, the Walk continued and has been a constant reminder in the community of why it’s important to raise awareness for bone marrow and blood stem cell donations. Monies raised have helped offset the laboratory costs associated with adding new donors to the registry, thereby giving patients in need the hope that their match will be found. It has been incredible to watch this event grow and continue to touch the lives of so many. I cannot thank Golda Och Academy enough for its dedication to our lifesaving mission and support throughout all these years.” 

This year, Gift of Life Special Projects Coordinator Nick Hudson walked with the Lower School. Hudson spoke to the elementary school students prior to heading outside to walk and thanked them for helping to save lives.

Anyone between the ages of 18 and 60 can be swabbed for the National Bone Marrow registry through Gift of Life, either during a donor drive or using an at-home kit. GOA seniors are offered the opportunity to get swabbed prior to graduation, and GOA hopes to offer additional swabbing opportunities for adults at school functions. For additional information, click HERE.

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