Gabriella Polsinelli still recalls the heartbreak she felt when her favorite aunt died of breast cancer five years ago.
She was a sixth-grader at the time and didn't really understand the disease. But watching her Aunt Maria transform from a vibrant woman to a frail, skinny and sickly one left a lasting impression on young Gabriella.
With her aunt's memory still strong, Polsinelli has became a teenage advocate for breast cancer awareness, raising money each year for the cause.
The senior at Baltimore Catholic High School organizes a team of students, teachers and others to participate in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Maryland. This year's race is Oct. 23 in Hunt Valley.
"It's very sad to watch someone so close to you go through something so tragic," Polsinelli said. "I felt I needed to raise money to help everybody else. I don't want anybody else to go through what my family did."
Polsinelli first walked in a Komen race — with her aunt — in 2004 and has participated every year since. In that first year, walking with family and close friends, she raised $300.
She began forming a team through her school last year. Called Cubs for the Cure after the school mascot, the team raised the most money of any new team last year at $12,706. Polsinelli has raised $34,000 over the years and has set her sights on the $50,000 milestone.
One day recently, Polsinelli set up a table in the school cafeteria to get fellow students to sign up for the team. Within a half-hour she had signed up 10 new members. She had 99 team members as of Friday.
Polsinelli was also selling T-shirts that she and her father designed for the team. This year's shirt is gold and has paw prints forming the shape of a breast cancer ribbon on the back.
Sophomore Tori Way was one of the students who signed up.
"I thought it would be a way to help other people," she said.
Kari McBride, the athletic director at the school, will also walk with the team. Her grandmother and great-grandmother both had breast cancer.
"It's in my heart to do something to fight the disease," she said. "When Gabriella started the team I knew I definitely would get involved."
Young people like Polsinelli are a potent force in the fight against breast cancer. About 30,000 people are expected to register for the Komen Maryland race this year, said race director Elaine Foard. So far, more than 3,780 are under age 18.
"They have had their mother, grandmothers or other family members affected by it," Foard said. "Or sometimes it's a teacher at school. That's how kids gets behind it. They are often very passionate because they have lost someone they love very much."
Polsinelli's aunt was 38 years old when she died. Polsinelli remembers being very close to the woman who was at her house frequently.
"She was like a second mom to me," Polsinelli said. "It was so easy for me to talk to her."
It hurt to watch when her aunt, whom she called Ria, lost her hair and then when her weight dropped drastically. Polsinelli remembers trying to make her aunt laugh in hopes that it would make her feel better.
Polsinelli said crossing the finish line in her aunt's memory during the Komen race always gives her a warm feeling.
"It is probably one of the most rejuvenating things we do as a family," she said. "Crossing the line with hundreds of survivors."