Oakland Mills High School students

Oakland Mills High School students Jade Vaughn (left), Monica Holloway, Cherise Carpenter and Kimberly Sealey, all 16, talk before making a presentation to a House of Delegates committee on a bill that would widen the pool of bone marrow donors by lowering the eligible age to 16. (Sun photo by Monica Lopossay / March 10, 2004)

Wending their way into a crowded Maryland House of Delegates hearing room yesterday, the four 16-year-olds were worried they'd face tough questions from legislators.

The bill the girls conceived and came to Annapolis to support would widen the pool of bone marrow donors by lowering the eligible age to 16, with parental consent. Minority patients have a particularly hard time finding donors and the girls, who are all African-American, are keenly aware of that.

But it's a technical, medical subject, not a feel-good symbolic issue that politicians can support without much thought.

In the end, the girls' fears proved unfounded. And the bill they conceived remains alive.

"I thought they'd be more aggressive than they were," mused Jade Vaughn, a daughter of Del. Michael L. Vaughn, a Prince George's County Democrat.

She and her friends, Cherise Carpenter, Kimberly Sealey and Monica Holloway, received a warm reception. In fact, Del. Michael D. Smigel Sr., a Republican from Elkton, praised the girls for creating a bill "that really affects people's lives."

The students' odyssey began two years ago, when Joslyn Wolfe, their faculty advisor in the Sister to Sister Club at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, showed them a Reader's Digest article about a teen in Washington state who, after the death of a friend, pushed a change in the law to allow bone marrow donors to be 16 instead of 18. Missouri allows donors to be 16, too, and Massachusetts is considering it.

"We actually realized we could make a difference and do the same thing he did," said Holloway.

As the girls researched bone marrow transplants, Wolfe contacted her delegate, Democrat Elizabeth Bobo, who invited the group to speak with her about their project in February 2003. That was too late in the last 90-day session to introduce legislation, but the club members kept working and stayed in touch with Bobo.

"People were really moved by it," Bobo said. "It was so clear to me that this was not a fleeting interest."

Views of the idea vary. The National Bone Marrow Donor Program is opposed, worried that teens might change their minds over time, leaving desperate recipients in the lurch.

"We're all excited to see young people getting involved in the legislative process," said Isaac Fordjour, a lobbyist for the donor program. "We don't think this is the right thing to do."

The organization is working hard to expand the diversity of the list of donors, experimenting with ways to get blood cells from umbilical cord tissue that would otherwise be waste.

But Dr. Peter R. Graze, president of the Maryland and D.C. Society of Oncology, supports the bill, arguing that expanding the pool of potential donors will "allow some patients to receive lifesaving treatment."

Yesterday, the girls made their case to the legislators in the hearing room of the Health and Government Operations Committee.

"It will help solve the medical ethical debate on stem cells," Holloway testified, because the cells can be extracted from bone marrow, thus "the controversy regarding their origin can be eliminated."

Sealey told the committee that finding marrow donors is very difficult for minorities, because the donor list is only 8 percent African-American and Hispanic, and 6 percent Asian.

The girls had help from Del. Frank S. Turner of Howard County, a co-sponsor with Bobo, who testified that he is a registered donor, and learned firsthand how small the pool is for minority patients when he was called to give marrow last summer.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a co-sponsor and member of the committee, helped coach the girls kids before the hearing to relax, look the delegates in the eyes, and speak slowly but firmly.

Afterward, Bobo told the girls "You did a beautiful job. A lot of people down there are talking about it."