SOMERS, N.Y. - For the last few years, the annual Cookie Swap for a Cause has delighted participants and raised thousands of dollars for organizations and facilities that care for children with rare illnesses. However, one group has always suffered after the event—the judges.

“I was definitely on sugar overload last year,” said Stacey Elconin, principal at Somers Intermediate School and second-time cookie judge.

Prior to the tasting, seasoned judges doled advice to the rookies. Phrases like, “make sure you drink plenty of water” and “only take a bite of each cookie,” were delivered with the intensity of a drill sergeant yelling last-minute orders into the wind before pushing soldiers out of a plane.

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“The first year, three other judges and I attempted to try every cookie—the whole cookie,” said Dr. Rick Bridgham, an orthodontic specialist and third-time judge. 

Although most of the judges reported that they were happy to endure some temporary discomfort for a good cause, the event’s organizers, Donna Martone, Hope Mazzola and Laura Roublick, took the previous years’ stomachaches into consideration and structured this year’s event, held Friday, Nov. 18, so judges would be grouped into teams and sample only certain categories.

“It’s a very difficult job but someone has to do it,” Bridgham said.

Raffle winners walked away with prizes ranging from donated gift certificates to local establishments to a flat-screen TV. Somers resident Michelle Bockhaus’ “triple chocolate balls” won Best in Show for the cookie contest. Her prizes included a large bottle of Kettle One vodka, a Nestle Tollhouse cookbook and oven mitts. She would not reveal her secret recipe, but said the creation is “very simple to make.”

Although the judges survived and came out stronger, the judges and event organizers agreed the true heroes were those who volunteered their time and money to make cookies, donated to the causes, purchased raffle tickets or contributed to the event in any capacity.

For Roublick, the event is hugely personal, she said. Three years ago, Mazzola, the founder of the Somers Moms Facebook page, wanted to organize a cookie swap to raise scholarship money for Somers High School seniors. Roublick saw the event as an opportunity to give back to the organizations that have helped her now 17-year-old daughter Nicole, who suffers from a rare blood disorder. Now, with help from Mazzola and Martone, who owns the Somers Community Center and hosts the event, Roublick is able to give back.

Her daughter was diagnosed as an infant with autoimmune lymphoproliferative syndrome (ALPS), which affects less than 300 people in the entire world. Children with the disease often spend many days per month in the hospital due to symptoms such as anemia and infections. Since the condition is so rare, there is limited research and support in place for families, Roublick said.

Nicole has been stable since trying a medication called rapamycin, which was created at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia through Cures Within Reach, a group that repurposes drugs and devices in order to find cures for disorders that don’t have effective treatments. Cures Within Reach was the beneficiary of last year’s cookie swap. Donations from the year before went to the Ronald McDonald House, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Camp Sunshine.

“It’s such a rare disease,” Roublick said of her daughter’s condition. “It’s not like I can go to a sponsored walk. I can’t repay organizations like the Ronald McDonald House for the many nights they let us stay there for free, but I can say thank you just by putting this together.”

Roublick also hopes to raise awareness for the condition, so that other families don’t feel quite as alone as hers did.

This year the event raised more than $3,000 making it the most successful yet, Roublick said. Proceeds will go to Somers High School and the Stephen D. Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital of New York at NYU Langone, where Nicole is a patient.

“My mom takes a lot of time out of her schedule to put her heart into this fundraiser every year,” Nicole said. “As a mom, she knows what it’s like to have a sick child like me. She always says how lucky I am and how thankful she is to everyone who helped us. My disease stinks, but I am lucky.”

In addition to the funds raised by raffle tickets, donations and the $25 cookie entry fee, Roublick set up a toy box for attendees to donate a small unwrapped toy for the Hassenfeld Center’s treasure box.

“The treasure box is a reward for kids,” Roublick said. “So when they’re done [with treatment] at the end of the day they’re allowed to go get a toy out of the box.”

The center relies on donated items to fill the box and Roublick was sad to see that the last time she was at the center, there wasn’t a box. Nicole said she remembers how even a small toy can make a big difference to a child undergoing treatment.

“I know what it is like to be in the hospital, receive numerous transfusions and other treatments,” Nicole said. “I think it is going to be a special thing for them to receive all those toys, games and new playroom items.”

Now, Nicole and her mom plan to fill the box every few months together.

“Even though you are receiving treatment for cancer or other blood disorders like mine, you still want to play with toys and have fun like every other kid,” she said. “Mom and I are going to give them a filled treasure chest.”