Teen raises funds to help fellow disabled 14-year-old girl attend high school

Kerry Justich
Gabriel Donovan (second from left) holds up his Adirondack Lilly design alongside the men from Spectrum Designs and the Center for Disability Services. (Photo courtesy of Maureen O'Brien)
Gabriel Donovan (second from left) holds up his Adirondack Lilly design alongside the men from Spectrum Designs and the Center for Disability Services. (Photo courtesy of Maureen O'Brien)

A 15-year-old boy with the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis is making headlines and raising thousands of dollars to help make the life of another teen living with disabilities easier.

Gabriel Donovan from Albany, N.Y., was introduced to 14-year-old Lilly after his mother, Maureen O’Brien, took a tour of a local nursing facility for fragile children and young adults living with ventilators. O’Brien tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she discovered a connection between Lilly and her son after finding out that the young girl had attended the same summer camp as Donovan. Still, O’Brien didn’t know that her son would feel so strongly about helping out the St. Margaret’s Center resident after learning that she was in need of some funds.

“I came home that night after touring, and I said to Gabe, ‘I met a girl who goes to Double H Ranch and she shared with me that there’s a piece of assistive technology she really needs for both her ability to communicate better with people and finish school and to do a couple of other things, and it’s unaffordable to her,’” O’Brien recalls of her conversation with her son. “So Gabe said, ‘Well, we have to figure out a way to help her.’”

According to Donovan and O’Brien, Lilly is in need of $16,000 to pay for the assistive technology that she would need to start high school. And in order to make that money, 15-year-old Donovan immediately thought to use the power of social media.

“We figured that the best way was to sell something and get money for it,” Donovan tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So we thought about the water bucket challenge, where we would have something that people can get and then once they get it, they would nominate people to get theirs, and so on and so forth. When people get a chance to be part of a happy thing, they take it.”

Donovan quickly set up a visit with Lilly at St. Margaret’s Center, where he expressed to her that he wanted to help her out. In that moment, Donovan explains that Lilly was both surprised by the offer and happy that he was willing to fundraise, likely because kids like Lilly “wouldn’t expect someone to help them.” For the teenage boy, however, helping Lilly wasn’t something he had to think much about.

“I’m an individual with a disability as well. And I use technologies,” Donovan shares. “My family is lucky enough to have a job where we can afford them. And I feel sad that kids like Lilly can’t get what they need.”

During that visit, Donovan let Lilly know about his idea of creating a design to go on tote bags and t-shirts that people can carry around or wear in order to raise awareness for the fund. He decided that the items should be decorated with flowers because of Lilly’s name and the floral decor in her room. Later, he called the design the Adirondack Lilly.

“Gabe came home and went right to work,” O’Brien says. “That was in June I think, towards the beginning of the summer.”

“And then August 1st was when the t-shirts were ready,” Donovan adds.

The company that Donovan and O’Brien teamed up with to print their custom items was no coincidence as well, as they had been aware of a custom apparel and promotional products business that hired people with developmental disabilities, Spectrum Designs. The company’s chief executive officer and co-founder, Patrick Bardsley, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the business is run with the social mission of creating training and employment opportunities for people like Donovan and Lilly — but never had he been approached with a project like theirs.

“In our almost 9 years of existence I don't recall a project that has sparked as much excitement, compassion and general goodwill as this one,” Bardsley tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “From meeting Gabe and seeing his beautiful artwork, to learning about how this will impact Lilly and those like her, to seeing the sheer number of people from all different walks of life who got behind it, it has been a great honor to play a small part in making Gabe's great vision come to light.”

Now, just weeks after beginning to sell the shirts and bags, the Adirondack Lilly fundraiser and the social media campaign surrounding its fundraising are taking off. Donovan and O’Brien explain that some of the most exciting wins thus far were when “American Idol” finalist Madison VanDenburg, jockeys at the Saratoga Race Course, and players for the Albany Empire football team proudly displayed their Adirondack Lilly shirts on social media.

Anne Schneider Costigan, senior vice-president of communications and development at the Center for Disability Services, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the widespread recognition has also been amazing for the St. Margaret’s community.

“We have grown based on community need and on community support. And the support for this campaign is truly overwhelming,” Costigan says. “Our center has always received that community support, and this is another example of how our community is pulling together in order to meet the need of Lilly.”

Costigan called both Donovan and Lilly an “inspiration,” while James Schlegel, the head of school at Christian Brothers Academy, where Donovan goes to high school, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the 15-year-old is “the very model of what it means to be a Brother.”

“In every way, Gabe is a servant-leader,” Schlegel shares. “He has faced serious medical challenges in his life and as soon as he was well enough to help others, he did. Instead of focusing on any negative aspect of life, he recognizes how fortunate he is and serves others. Gabe leads by example and uses his charismatic person to attract others to serve alongside him.”

Donovan says that he’s already halfway through his fundraising goal, and hopes that the Adirondack Lilly campaign can continue to raise funds for St. Margaret’s Center and the Center for Disability Services through their donation link, so that other people in need can have access to all of the necessary technologies.

Still, he says that he shouldn’t be praised for his efforts.

“I don’t really feel like I should be commended for it,” Donovan says. “This is just what I need to do and what I should do.”

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