From Purple Community to JBoard Ambassador

During an eighth-grade class project on chemotherapy, Sydney Vucelich stumbled onto Van Andel Institute’s website. She thought her work would benefit from the perspective of an expert from the community. After exchanging a few emails, Sydney found herself visiting Medical Mile to meet with renowned cancer scientist and VAI Founding Research Director, the late Dr. George Vande Woude.

“Looking back, I really can’t believe it — a successful, internationally recognized scientist sat down with three eighth graders to answer our questions about chemotherapy,” Sydney said.

The meeting left such an impression that Sydney knew she had to get involved. That’s when she learned about VAI Purple Community and decided it was the perfect opportunity. Sydney and her friends Allie Wittenbach, Isabella Fiorenzo and Mariah Otolski organized a track team fundraiser, baking cookies and selling purple t-shirts to support the cause. It was her first time volunteering, and it was already a success: the event raised more than $5,000 to support research at the Institute.

Her dedication to Purple Community continued during her time at Forest Hills Central High School, where Sydney and her friends organized Purple Games and other fundraising events throughout the year, raising more than $100,000 by the time she graduated. For Sydney, the value went beyond the funds: the real benefit came from brining VAI’s mission to the community. Sydney and her classmates received the Carol Van Andel Angel of Excellence Award in 2014 for their efforts.

After graduation, Sydney spent time away from VAI, Grand Rapids and Purple Community, but the mission remained present.

“My grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and my grandfather with pancreatic cancer, so it wasn’t just about raising money, it was about working to change the future for the better,” she said.

When she returned home, Sydney joined the JBoard, VAI’s network of young professionals. She was joined by her husband, Samuel, who had his own personal connection with the cause.

“My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 15 years ago, and that experience is something that makes you want to do more” Samuel said. “Hearing from Sydney about VAI and attending JBoard events made me realize this is a place where we can make an impact.”

For Sydney, engaging with VAI along her husband deepened her connection to the Institute while strengthening their relationship. They find it to be a perfect cause, one that connects their family history, personal interests and passion to create a better future.

The JBoard also has connected them to the Grand Rapids community, bringing together other young professionals with shared interests. This was an unexpected benefit, Samuel said, but one that has made it clear the Institute is the right place for them.

“At so many networking events people have a self-centered perspective, but that does not happen here,” Samuel said. “No matter who you talk to at a VAI or JBoard event, they’re there for the science, the researchers, the cause — and the conversation always hinges on how we can make a greater impact together.”

Sydney and Samuel see JBoard, and their involvement with VAI as a whole, as a lifelong relationship. They aim to continue supporting the Institute, attending events, and following along with its mission. It might even carry into the next generation.

“Just the other day my sister was telling me that she would like to get involved with the Institute, and I’m also working on getting more of Samuel’s side of the family into things,” Sydney said. “Hopefully one day my kids can organize their own Purple Community events.”

To learn more about VAI’s JBoard Ambassadors visit vai.org/JBoard