By Melissa Russell
Alex Davila was a kind 16-year-old when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer that metastasized following an arm amputation.
While enduring the agonies of chemotherapy, Alex turned to fellow patients, delivering them cookies and treats to cheer them up during their own treatments. He shared what he had even though, as a low-income patient, he didn’t have much.
Alex died in 2006, leaving behind a legacy of kindness that inspired his family. They established the Fundacion Jovenes Contra el Cancer (FJCC), to support young people undergoing cancer treatment in their home country of Ecuador. In that spirit, he also inspired his sister, Stefani, who was just 3 years old at the time, and who continues to honor his memory as an organizer, activist, and artist.
“Since I was a child, I remember keeping in contact with the patients, calling them ‘guerreros’ — warriors— playing with them, painting their houses, bringing furniture and food,” said Stefani, now entering her senior year as a Business of Creative Enterprises major . “I have been so lucky to meet patients who remind me of him, as if his soul went into them. I want to keep his legacy and essence of his life through other people and continue to do what he did.”
Nine years after Alex’s passing, the family moved from Quito to Miami, Florida. Ever since, Stefani’s mission has been to help change other lives for the better.That energy came back to her during her sophomore year at Miami Dade College, when she was among 100 students to receive a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship, which enabled her to transfer to Emerson College.
A Mark, A Mission
Davila’s desire to make a difference manifested during high school in 2019, when she founded the organization Meraki Youth to inspire fellow students to take an active role in their communities through services, such as writing letters to veterans, collecting clothing donations, participating in beach clean-up events, and advocating for undocumented youth.
“I’m committed to being an example of resilience, solidarity, and service to my younger brother, Douglas, the light of my life, just like Alex has been to me,” she said.
In 2021, Davilla founded the first annual FJCC international volunteer mission trip to care for cancer patients in Ecuador, raising more than $1,300 in donations. The second trip, in 2022, raised more than $4,000.
Last spring, Davila and volunteers raised $5,000 for the third trip, which took place in June. Funds provide food kits, transportation expenses, and emergency funds for cancer patients. Volunteers also offer art and music therapy, emotional support workshops, and organize an activity called “Brigades of Hope” in which they deliver food, medicine, and clothing to patients’ homes.
Her fundraising efforts also include photography and art, and making beaded bracelets to sell on Instagram. “It’s a good way to raise funds and people get a nice gift,” she said, adding, “they sell a lot!”
In the spring, Davila received the School of Communications Award for Civic & Community Engagement, nominated by Executive-in-Residence Robert Lyons, who called her “a joy to be around.”
“She’s kind of a serious person and strikes me as being on a mission,” he said. “That deep and extensive experience, where she’s been involved with it for years back home and grew it from supplying clothes to cancer patients to now doing sustainability practices – that is unusual.”
In presenting the award, Senior Executive-in-Residence Brenna McCormick, director of the BCE program, called Davila a “bright light to the BCE community” who has “come to the attention of her faculty and peers due to the extensive heart-centered work she does advocating.”
In the past few years, Davila has developed an impressive portfolio of international and public policy experiences. She attended IREX’s Global Solutions Conversations and Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, the Washington Seminar and the Public Policy Leadership Conference at Harvard Kennedy School. This year (so far), she has attended the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative University and received a Stevens Initiative Alumni Fellowship,
While the work has been exciting and challenging, there have been pitfalls and obstacles along the way. Not everyone was enthusiastic about Meraki Youth when it was in the planning stages, Davila said, and some of her high school teachers discouraged her from pursuing such an ambitious undertaking. “Some teachers didn’t take me seriously because I was only 16,” she said. “They didn’t believe in me and made me doubt myself.”
The world seemed to cave in on Davila again years later when, in 2021, her beloved grandmother died from COVID-19. “We were super close, and I didn’t know how to take it. There was a numb presence, and I had to push myself because I didn’t want to disappoint people or myself. …. I didn’t know how to say no to people, but I needed time to heal. That was the hardest part.”
Her saving grace: Focusing on the work in the community and mentoring others. It’s this work that brings Davila the most joy and keeps her focus on the future. She plans to apply to Harvard Graduate School of Education for the Education Leadership, Organizations, and Entrepreneurship (ELOE) Program and continue the work growing Meraki Youth, mentoring the next generation of young leaders.
“It makes you so happy, when other people you’re helping are thriving with you – That’s what a leader does, you move forward together,” she said. “Gracias to every single person that has believed in Meraki Youth and FJCC mission along the way.”