Marta Belcher probably has a lot more on her plate than the average rising senior at the University of California, Berkeley. Ambitious and extremely well-spoken, the 20-year-old California native is already running a major nonprofit, in addition to balancing her normal school work and applying for law school next year.
"I also do a lot of work with umbilical cord blood banking, trying to make that more public," she said. "I'm really passionate about stem cell research."
Luckily, she met a similarly driven ally early on. During her freshman year at UC Berkekley, Marta met fellow student Fred Scarf, and the two instantly clicked. Fred had started an organization called No Worries Now at 15 years old in honor of his best friend, Shiri Gumbiner, who had passed away from a rare form of bone cancer called Osteosarcoma. Before Shiri died, the two friends had planned to attend their high school prom together.
"A lot of sick teens can't attend their proms because of their really intense treatment schedules, or other health issues," said Marta, who has since become the executive director and CEO of No Worries Now. "But prom is this really symbolic marker for them. Our organization gives them that chance."
Since 2007, over 400 teens with terminal illnesses have attended the No Worries Now proms in Los Angeles. The 2010 prom was held at Sony Pictures Studios and featured a pre-taped welcome message from Snoop Dogg and red carpet appearances from the actresses Anna Kendrick and Monique Coleman. There was a doctor and an EMT on call, but otherwise nothing made this event any different from your classic high school prom. Kids danced, gossiped and laughed in fancy clothes.
The events have been such a huge success that Marta plans to expand to at least 10 other states in the coming year. "We're calling it 'Prom in a Box,'" she said. "It's going to give volunteers around the country the tools and everything they need to organize their own proms in their own cities."
And she's also expanding beyond the prom programs. In 2009, Marta met Sammi Ashburn, another teen with Osteosarcoma, whom grew close with while she was doing an internship in Sacramento. Sammi's mother was understandably protective, wary of letting her go out at night due to her health, but she and Marta tried as best they could to put everything aside while they were together.
"The first time I met her, she was in remission," Marta said. "We hung out all the time, one on one, we did everything together, and it sparked this idea to expand the foundation."
Sstarting next August, Marta and No Worries Now will launch the Pair Program in San Francisco in honor of Sammi, who passed away in April. The program will pair teen volunteers and patients together based on their interests, aiming to facilitate deeper connections.
So many of these kids are spending all their time in hospitals, or with their parents, Marta says, that they don't have time to just hang out. "At the proms, some of them don't know anyone at first, and it's a little awkward. But this Pair Program will be a year long. We think it'll make the prom that much more meaningful for everyone involved."
Marta also works extensively with social networking platforms for No Worries Now, trying to connect the community and organize more events, so the teens can see each other and talk together more often. The idea of fostering this specific community -- giving them the chance to be included and feel "like teenagers" -- is the most important aspect of the program for Marta, and for Fred.
"When you're at these [proms] it's the most amazing feeling," said Marta. "You see these kids, and its hard to tell a lot of times which ones are the sick ones and which ones are not. All you can tell is that they're all in kind of the same place, mentally, and they're all having an amazing time. No one feels like the odd one out because everyone kind of understands what everyone else has been going through."
The 2011 No Worries Now prom will be held this Wednesday night at Madame Tussaud's on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Click here to learn more about the organization, and to donate.