Lighting the night for a cause

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Lighting the night for a cause

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Gold, white and red lanterns filled the Boston Common last Wednesday night, with more than 5,000 supporters gathered together to “Light the Night” in memory of those who’ve died from leukemia and lymphoma. The 18th annual Light the Night walk, organized by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), raised money to help reduce the cost of cancer treatments for families. 

Suffolk’s team, Love for Lara, was created in 2013 by Melanie Berkmen, a biochemistry professor whose niece Lara Berkmen died from leukemia at age 14. The team started one year after her death. 

Since Berkman is one of the faculty members on the honors program committee, she first organized the Love for Lara team with honors students. 

“Lara was such a good student and I know she would have been in the honors program,” said Berkmen in an interview with The Suffolk Journal. “That is why I wanted to get the honors students involved.”

The Love for Lara team has since been opened for all students. Suffolk’s biochemistry and oncology support clubs are involved in it as well.

“It wasn’t hard to create this team because so many people love Lara, and as soon as she passed away, I wanted to remember her and do something in her memory and I knew other people would want to too,” said Berkman.

Lara Berkmen was born in Wellesley, Mass. on July 19, 1999. When she was five, her family moved to Manhattan for four years. Soon after, Lara attended fourth grade in Connecticut until seventh grade, in September, when she was diagnosed with leukemia. 

Lara spent the following year in the hospital, with her mother, Nevin Berkmen, by her side. She would be relieved by Melanie and Lara’s father, Oguz Tanrikulu, on weekends.

“She wanted to become a writer. The Make a Wish Foundation approached us and asked Lara what she wanted to do while she was sick,” said Nevin in an interview with The Journal. “Lara didn’t want to meet a celebrity or go to Disney World, she wanted to become a writer and share her story of survival, which she was very hopeful for at the time.”

Despite an exhausting treatment process, Lara fought to keep up with her academics throughout her battle with leukemia. 

“She was such a diligent child, she was always trying to study and keep up with her school work during that time,” said Melanie Berkmen. 

Lara passed away on Aug. 15, 2013.

After her death, her family made it their mission to know exactly why she had died. Nevin said a possible part of the reason Lara had died was because the doctors had mis-diagnosed the type of leukemia Lara had. The Berkmen family sued the hospital after it admitted to mis-diagnosing her. 

“It took two and a half years of fighting. Whatever strength left that we had, we used it in her honor to save future children,” said Nevin.

Marina Shektman, who said she was like a second mom to Lara, knew her since she was a baby.

“We used to be next-door neighbors and live in the same house, basically,” said Shektman. “We moved to a different state and later found out Lara had been diagnosed… For me to picture her so young is heartbreaking.” 

Alexia Baugniet, an oncology management honors student and senior at Suffolk, has been the captain of the “Love for Lara” team for two years. She has participated in the Light the Night walk for all four or her collegiate years.

Baugniet lead more than 40 walkers at this year’s Light the Night walk. She also created a fundraising page with a goal of $1,750 and raised $2,282 for the team. 

“My freshman year, we started off with ten students and now, my senior year, many more students have joined,” said Baugniet. “My goal was to get the Suffolk community involved and learn more about this organization. I focus on anything to do with cancer research, I’m there and ready to support as much as I can.”

As the walk continued, Bethany Buenteo from Houston, Texas walked to honor the loss of her father, Carlos Rene Buenteo.

Carlos died from acute myeloid leukemia at age 70 on Sept. 19, 2019.

“I called the Massachusetts Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to walk in Boston since I was not able to do the one in San Antonio,” said Buenteo in an interview with The Journal. “My father always told me he was blowing me kisses, now I am honoring and raising awareness for him.”