When one student’s name was announced at this year’s Burbank High School graduation ceremony, it was met not with cheers, but silence.
The student wasn’t there to collect her diploma or walk across the stage to a wave of applause. Instead, when Evelyn Swierczynski was named, the audience quietly stood, taking a moment to honor the rising 10th-grader who, if she hadn’t died from acute myeloid leukemia in 2018, would have graduated with her class that day.
Meredith Swierczynski said the recognition, even though she gladly gave permission for it to happen, “gutted” her. And though she’s thankful that friends of her daughter, nicknamed Evie, have stayed in touch with her, the updates are bittersweet.
“It’s exciting for me to see what her friends are doing, and I’m really lucky that they stay in touch with me,” the mother said. “But at the same time, it’s really heartbreaking, because Evie should also be on that path, doing all those cool things that she had planned for herself.”
Evie would have turned 18 this Thursday, July 15. The Swierczynskis — Meredith; her husband, Duane; and their son, Parker — are determined not to let her birthday be forgotten.
Next week, from Monday to Sunday, Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena will host a fundraiser benefiting the Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation. When customers present a printed voucher — available at teameviefoundation.com/events — to the cashier, 20% of the purchase price will be allocated to the foundation.
People can also participate by purchasing from Vroman’s online and entering the coupon code TEAMEVIE.
The money the nonprofit receives from the fundraiser will go toward the purchase of books for a lending library dedicated to Evie at John Muir Middle School’s outdoor classroom. Evie, who attended the school, was known for her love of books, her sense of humor and her kindness, according to her mother.
Meredith Swierczynski explained that the lending library will be placed at the school in the fall, allowing students to borrow any of the roughly 50 books that will be stocked there. Donations left over from the fundraiser will go toward the nonprofit’s annual book drive for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where Evie stayed after her cancer diagnosis.
FINDING THE MATCH
Additionally, Vroman’s will also host a blood drive on Tuesday that will feature a recruiter looking for potential donors of blood stem cells and bone marrow.
Veronica Lases of Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches, a recruitment organization for the nonprofit Be the Match, will also be at the bookstore on Tuesday — the day of the blood drive — to invite visitors to sign up for a registry. Lases first met the Swierczynskis after Evie was diagnosed with cancer, she explained, and learned the girl needed a bone marrow transplant.
However, Lases said, about 80% of donors instead give blood stem cells through a procedure that is relatively less invasive than a marrow transplant. Those who sign up for the registry receive a cheek swab kit for testing. Participants donate only if they are the best match for a specific patient, and they remain anonymous to the recipient.
“We’re basically giving them a new, healthier immune system that can go and help fight the illnesses and the diseases,” Lases said.
Whether a donor gives blood stem cells or bone marrow, Lases explained, there is no long-term effect on the donor, Lases said. A potential donor can also decline to continue the process for any reason.
Lases said more registrants are needed, since no patient is guaranteed to find a donor who is compatible with them. The probability of finding a matching donor is influenced by a person’s ethnic background and is particularly low for people of color, she added: 79% for white patients versus 29% for Black patients, 47% for Asian and Pacific Islander patients, 48% for Hispanic patients and 60% for Native American patients.
Doctors tend to look for donors ages 18-44, Lases explained, though participants remain on the registry until they turn 61. Those wanting to receive a cheek swab kit can text TEAMEVIE2021 to 61474.
Though her daughter died despite receiving a marrow transplant, Meredith Swierczynski said the foundation has campaigned to get more people to join the registry for the sake of other children.
“Our life changed because we knew that she was getting that transplant and it gave us the hope that we needed, that she needed,” Swierczynski said.
DONORS GIVE BLOOD
Appointment slots for the blood drive at Vroman’s filled up quickly. Swierczynski said she was hoping for 30 sign-ups; at the beginning of this week, she had 35. She encourages local residents who are interested in donating blood to make an appointment with CHLA.
One pint of blood, she added, can help up to three patients.
Swierczynski initially contacted Vroman’s Bookstore in December, hoping to purchase some books from a small business for CHLA. Amanda Barillas, Vroman’s school coordinator, helped the other woman find the books she wanted, and also suggested some ways the bookstore could help her nonprofit.
Vroman’s Bookstore has aided charitable organizations and schools in the past, Barillas explained, adding that philanthropy is one of the business’ founding principles. Vroman’s will also participate in the Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation’s book drive later this year.
“It’s just so great to see [Meredith Swierczynski’s] passion to really dive into this in honor of her daughter so that it helps others, which I think is just phenomenal,” Barillas said.
Evie, her mother said, wanted to be a history teacher, thanks to a positive experience with her own at John Muir. She dreamed of going to Columbia University — a goal Meredith has no doubt she could have achieved if she had more time. Her daughter would have impacted a lot of people, she’s sure.
And yet, Swierczynski feels that through the endurance of Evie’s story, she has. The Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation recently received federal recognition as a nonprofit, and has a new logo containing a drawing of Evie’s cat, Rocky. Evie and Meredith Swierczynski, the mother explained, often talked about what tattoos they wanted to get when Evie was in remission. During a sleepover the month before she died, Evie’s best friend Scarlett Shamirian drew a cat on Evie’s leg as a kind of temporary tattoo.
Even though Evie wasn’t able to receive a permanent mark, her mother chose the design for her own tattoo, which she got after her daughter’s death, and it also became the new face of the family’s nonprofit.
“I think every parent who has lost a child, their worst nightmare is [that] their child will be forgotten, and I don’t want her to ever be forgotten,” she said. “So as long as there’s breath in me, I will be talking about her and doing things for our foundation in order to honor her.”
While next week’s events are a way for the Swierczynskis to remember Evie, Meredith said the family often finds itself blindsided by heartache on major days like graduation and birthdays. The blood drive and fundraiser, of course, will provide some distraction.
But on Thursday — Evie’s 18th birthday — the family plans to stay home.