Cousins Elizabeth Merz and Georgia Barczak are well acquainted with the turmoil a cancer diagnosis can cause in a family.

Merz’s younger brother Liam was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at the age of 3. At the time, Merz was only 7 years old. Just a few years later, Barczak’s father Bret was diagnosed with throat cancer.

Both are in remission today, and Merz and Barczak’s families credit organizations like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) with the life-saving research and medical breakthroughs that made Liam and Bret’s recovery possible.

That’s why the two girls, both students at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, are embarking on a fundraising project to support LLS and to further research that can treat cancers like those that affected their beloved dad and brother.

Merz and Barczak have been nominated to lead a team in the Student of the Year Campaign, a fundraising initiative that runs now through March 12. In those seven weeks, the cousins will work with their network of family and friends, as well as the social networks of their team members, to reach their fundraising goal of $50,000.

After a “long conversation,” said Barczak, the girls settled on “Cousins Cause” for a team name to highlight the centrality of family to their mission.

“We went through that together, and even though it was something really sad, I also remember it being something that brought us together,” she said. “We felt really supported and loved by everyone around us, and I think that’s something special that Elizabeth and I have in our family.”

Merz said that she feels inspired to give back to the cause of cancer research because, looking back, she is finally able to appreciate the gravity of the situation her family faced with her brother’s illness.

“I don’t think I understood how serious it was until he couldn’t do things anymore — until he couldn’t go to church on the weekend, or until we took a vacation and he had to stay home with my mom,” she said. “When I got older, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Looking back, I see how serious it was. It was a very scary time, but I wasn’t exposed to that. My perspective has changed and I just really want to give back and help out.”

LLS is the world’s largest voluntary nonprofit health organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research and to providing education and patient services. The Student of the Year fundraising initiative is aimed at high school students, who must be nominated and vetted by LLS to participate before heading up a team and raising money in honor of a local cancer patient. During the process, they will learn leadership, communication, finance and marketing skills as they work to meet their goal before the March 12 deadline.

On March 12, the cousins and their families will attend a special gala to mark the end of the initiative. The winners will be announced at the end of the night.

The girls, both of whom are on the rugby team at DSHA, have relied heavily on their school community for support as they embark on their fundraising endeavor. “The majority of our team members are from DSHA, and one of our rugby coaches is on the team, too,” she said. “The goal is to have a multigenerational team.”

To donate to Cousins Cause, visit

Cousins Cause will also benefit from a fundraising event at the Kendra Scott store at the Corners of Brookfield. On Feb. 27, from 1 to 4 p.m., a portion of the store’s proceeds will be donated to Cousins Cause.