Michaela Margida MS’13 is changing the lives of chronically ill children and their families — one valentine at a time.
In 2010, when Michaela Margida was still a student at the Nicholas School, she and her brother co-founded The Valentine Project: a small non-profit organization that distributes care packages to children and families affected by cancer and other forms of chronic illness.
The Duke alum and her brother know exactly what it feels like to be a victim of chronic illness, considering Michaela was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was only five years old. Michaela remembers how difficult it was trying to cope with the situation at such a young age. “I had to learn big medical words that no kid that age should ever have to know,” she says. “While most kids were outside playing, I was learning what it meant to have an encapsulated brain tumor.”
While her early childhood was rough, Michaela is grateful to have survived the momentous experience. “I’m one of the rare child brain tumor patients who has been able to go on to live a normal adult life. I don’t have any lingering handicaps — nothing to indicate that I was once a child with a brain tumor. I’m very blessed.”
Despite surviving the tolling experience, Michaela sometimes struggles with knowing there are many children and families who aren’t so lucky. “I sometimes feel a bit of ‘survivor’s guilt’ [for surviving while so many other’s don’t]. I suppose starting The Valentine Project is how I’ve tried to give back to those dealing with what I did as a kid.”
Today, volunteers from all over the world make personalized care packages for victims of childhood cancer that Michaela and her brother’s organization then ship to the children’s doorsteps in time for Valentine’s Day.
The Valentine Project does not make any references in their packages to “get well soon” or anything that may remind the children and their families of their hardship. This is largely because of Michaela’s personal experience as a child patient. “When I was little, I didn’t want to be known as the kid with the brain tumor. I just wanted to be a kid.”
The siblings of each patient also receive a gift package of their own, since the Margida siblings know all too well how cancer can have a devastating effect on an entire family. “Our goal is to bring a smile to these children and their families and to allow them to forget about the shadow that serious illness casts over their life, even if for just one day.”
This past February, nearly 1,000 children received a care package on Valentine’s Day.
When she’s not working with The Valentine Project, Michaela is still highly invested in the study of environmental science, which she began as a student at the Nicholas School. She graduated with an MS degree and is currently completing her PhD from the University of Toledo. Her research involves mathematical modeling of plant litter decomposition, and she is interested in the effects of carbon quality and nutrient content on decomposition rates. Her true passion lies in education and outreach, and she hopes to integrate her interest in environmental studies with her passion for teaching after she graduates.