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Getting cheeky

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If you could take 15 minutes out of your day to help save a life, would you do it? Efforts are underway on campus to use social media to make that answer a “yes” and provide hope for the 3,000 U.S. patients who every day are in need of life-saving bone marrow transplants.

The National Marrow Donor Program, through its “Be The Match” registry, has assembled more than 9 million possible donors, resulting in more than 43,000 transplants since its creation in 1987. Although there is no guarantee of survival if a patient finds a match, it is the first and often the only step toward a chance at life.

According to the New York Blood Center, while about 80 percent of Caucasians who require transplants are able to find a match in the donor registry, the chances for minorities are far slimmer. The 100K Cheeks website reports that a person of South Asian descent in need of a transplant has a 1 in 20,000 chance of finding a match.

Now, Stanford’s own 100K Cheeks campaign hopes to improve those odds and hopefully ease the pain for thousands of families by using social media to increase the number of bone marrow registries, with an emphasis on those of South Asian descent.

The campaign recently joined forces with the CureSonia campaign for its first bone marrow registry drive, which is set to take place on Jan. 20 in White Plaza and the Graduate Community Center Havana Room.

The CureSonia campaign shares the goal of 100K Cheeks, but with more urgency and focus on donors of South Asian and Asian decent. It is looking for a transplant match for Sonia Rai, who has been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood.

Kamini Rai Cormier, Sonia’s first cousin and an active participant in the CureSonia campaign, said she has found that for successful drives, “the more volunteers, the more people we are able to register.” The CureSonia campaign has 50 bone marrow drives planned in the next two weeks alone.

By combining the resources of the Haas Center and the National Marrow Donor Program with the outreach efforts of 100K Cheeks and CureSonia, the groups hope to achieve a large increase in the registry.

100K Cheeks, which was launched in November 2010, has the goal of registering 100,000 people, at least 80 percent of whom are of South Asian decent, within a year. Joining the registry requires one to fill out paperwork and provide a cheek swab. The option of ordering an at-home bone marrow donor registration kit further eases the process.

As Vineet Singal ’12, co-executive director of the campaign, noted, “The only obstacle is that enough people are not registered. It seems like something that is very solvable.”

The idea behind the 100K Cheeks campaign came from business professor  Jennifer Aaker. Her two former students and friends, Sameer Bhatia and Vinay Chakravarthy, were diagnosed with leukemia and decided to take action and actively seek potential bone marrow donors.

Their friends began a campaign to add 25,000 people to the registry. Once they reached this goal, however, the first words out of their mouths were, “Let’s double that,” Aaker said.

Despite finding matches, both Bhatia and Chakravarthy passed away. In their honor, Aaker had the idea to not only fulfill their wishes, but also exceed them by striving for 100,000 registries.

“What we wanted to do was double the 25,000 and then double it again, in honor of both of them,” she said.

Bhatia and Chakravarthy’s struggles inspired Aaker to write a book, called “The Dragonfly Effect,” with her husband Andy Smith, an tech marketer. The book addresses how individuals or groups can effectively use social media for a greater cause.

It focuses on the four “wings” of identifying and attaining focus, grabbing attention, engaging an audience through storytelling and enabling others to take action.

Aaker outlined a strategy for the 100K Cheeks campaign around this model and joined with Thomas Schnaubelt, the executive director of the Haas Center for Public Service. Their intent was to find eager students and begin to make an impact through the CommonWealth Challenge, a new initiative through the Haas Center that works with faculty to identify one specific goal and recruits ambitious students.

Schnaubelt described the CommonWealth Challenge as a project “to see how these students would self-organize and network given the goal.” Aaker and Schnaubelt both agreed that 100K Cheeks campaign would be an ideal vehicle for the challenge and eventually assembled a team of eight undergraduate students and two graduate students.

Although Schnaubelt and Aaker have acted as advisers and periodically help the students, they see the campaign as a student-driven endeavor.

Donovan Barfield ’12, co-executive director of the campaign, believes that personal storytelling is effective in recruiting the target audience because “it makes it all the more rewarding to know that when you donate, you are actually saving a life as opposed to contributing and being a statistic within the donor bank.”

The campaign has YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts, a website and an e-mail campaign to nearly every dorm and group on campus. The campaign has also begun a friendly inter-collegiate competition, mainly with USC, to see which campus can get more registries.

Cormier believes that “the biggest thing that prevents people [from registering] is fear.” With more education on the process, the campaign has the potential to make more people feel comfortable and eventually achieve more registries.

The 100K Cheeks campaign does not plan to stop at 100,000 registries–it hopes to achieve more than a million and eventually bring a convenient bone marrow registry to India, where the registry is costly to join.

For now, however, the campaign’s main focus is achieving its 100,000 cheek swabs. As Barfield said, “If we save one life, we could save a thousand lives.”

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