Senior takes initiative to help families of sick children

It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday, and while many students are meandering off-campus in pursuit of food, Carmel High senior Caroline Mierzwa is in Room C working furiously on her latest project.

“My little cousin in Poland has cystic fibrosis, so my family is frequently going back and forth to hospitals,” says Mierzwa, who lost another cousin in a battle against lung cancer and was inspired to help families going through what she had seen her relatives experience firsthand.

And so she turned to Family House, a facility in San Francisco which provides temporary housing for families of sick children while they receive treatment at University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Upon her first visit to Family House in July 2016, the budding philanthropist was almost immediately put in charge of the high school volunteer groups and began helping out with a wide variety of tasks, from buying milk to calling social workers, while staying at Family House herself for five weeks.

“I would do anything anyone needed to have done,” she recalls. “I never knew what my day would entail, but it always ended up being new and different every day.”

Her hard work and dedication shone through right from the start, as Family House Chief Executive Officer Alexandra Morgan acknowledges.

“She’s certainly comfortable working here in a variety of roles, all of which she performed beautifully,” Morgan notes.

The aspiring pediatrician returned to Family House to volunteer for another two weeks in December, playing an instrumental role in organizing an annual Secret Santa tradition. Morgan also recalls that Mierzwa cooked Christmas dinner for all Family House residents, approximately 80 people.

The senior has brought Family House to CHS through her implementation of fundraisers via This Club Saves Lives, an on-campus club dedicated to service projects. For instance, in September, she initiated a toiletry drive within the freshman class, taking time to present her vision and her experiences in volunteering with Family House to all freshmen.

This Club Saves Lives adviser Leigh Cambra, who helped to oversee the project, comments on Mierzwa’s passion and ability to make the fundraiser a personal experience for students: “I was overwhelmed by all the support that a lot of the [students] showed for the toiletry drive.”

As if that were not enough, the college-bound volunteer led an effort to hand-make 13 fleece blankets for families, which she delivered while on her December visit and has more recently facilitated a care package drive, requiring her to reach out to people community-wide and set up an Amazon wishlist, both of which she did independently.

And so, with so much to do, the senior finds herself in Room C week after week.

With the help of student support, Cambra hopes to continue this connection with Family House in the future, though she admits it will be difficult after Mierzwa graduates.

“I don’t know how she did it, but it seems that the more responsibility she takes on, the more she thrives, and our families benefitted from it,” Morgan says of the University of San Francisco admit.

And it seems that the organization has helped her, too, as Mierzwa emphasizes that Family House has reminded her of the true meaning of a healthy life.

“It brought a new perspective to my life,” she remembers. “You hear all these stories…but once you actually get to connect with families and hear what they go through and their hardships, it makes you really thankful for what you have.”

-Melissa Pavloff