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Daniel Hand High School freshman Alexandra Minutillo (center, in Madison paw-print shirt) has started the Smiles for Smilow club at her school as one arm of the Kids Helping Kids with a Smile, Inc. organization, she founded to aid teens and preteens undergoing cancer treatment at Yale-New Haven Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Minutillo
Alexandra Minutillo, a 14-year-old freshman at Daniel Hand High School (DHHS), is a pretty typical teenager-her cell phone wouldn't stop buzzing during a recent interview. But what is unusual about Minutillo is the reason she was being interviewed: She is the founder of Smiles for Smilow, a campaign to support 10- to 18-year-old kids with cancer. Minutillo has seen firsthand how devastating cancer can be. Both her grandparents had cancer. Her grandmother has passed away. Her grandfather is doing well, cancer-free. Seeing what her grandparents and others have gone through, Minutillo decided when she started high school a few months ago, "I wanted to take on a project that would help people. And I wanted to do it locally," she said. Let Minutillo tell what happens next: "I met with a child life specialist at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital and was told that the niche that needed to be filled was in helping the preteen and teen population at Smilow Cancer Center celebrate milestones. "With the help of friends, family, and my high school, I was able to found the non-profit corporation Kids Helping Kids with a Smile, Inc., with our first project being Smiles for Smilow," she continued. "I would like to thank [Principal] Mr. [Anthony] Salutari and [Advisor] Mr. [John] Gage for allowing me to bring the club Smiles for Smilow to Daniel Hand High Scholl as well. Together we can make a difference!" Older children, those aged 10 to 18, don't generally have the kind of gifts and presents they desire, said Minutillo. Minutillo came up with the idea of using donations to buy "everything from gift cards to T-shirts and baseball caps for boys and Alex Ani bracelets for girls." Soon Minutillo had more than 30 DHHS friends join her Smiles for Smilow campaign. The group created Kids Helping Kids With a Smile, Inc., and has raised more than $2,000 in only a couple of weeks. The group has its own logo, website (SmilesforSmilow.org and KidsHelpingKidsWithASmile.org), and mission statement, which reads: "To raise community awareness of the often invisible preteen and teen population living with life threatening diseases and to help provide specific, age appropriate items to make their hospital stays more pleasant. "In addition, we commit to provide gift card incentives and other age appropriate donations as tangible items to applaud those preteens and teens that make positive strides during their hospital stays while batting their respective health challenges." "What makes Lexi special is that she is full of heart and soul and she is a 'doer'," said Minutillo's mother Jeri Minutillo. "Her father and I are so proud of what she has been able to accomplish in such a short period of time with Smiles for Smilow. "We think it is wonderful how quickly her thoughtfulness for others who are less fortunate and often go unnoticed, has spread throughout her high school and the Connecticut community at large," Jeri Minutillo continued. "With Smiles for Smilow, Lexi is a teen with a mission and a message who hopes to bring a smile to every teen and preteen patient at Smilow Cancer Center." Recently Alexandra Minutillo told the story of her fundraising to the Madison Chamber of Commerce, which came away wowed by her project and her enthusiasm. While Minutillo's work on Smiles for Smilow takes up a lot of time ("about eight hours a week," she says), she does have other interests-which include singing. She said even though she is only a freshman, she already has a pretty good idea of what she wants to study in college-"something in psychiatry and child development." She also has a pretty good idea of where she wants to go, too-Georgetown. But Minutillo has a bit more work still to do in Madison. She said she's working on spreading the Smiles for Smilow campaign to other schools in town. She has a partner in that mission, her younger brother Anthony, who is a 5th grader at the Brown School. "Everyone in my family has been so supportive," said Minutillo. "Actually, everyone has been supportive."