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PhD student spreading love to children with cancer on Valentine’s Day

Love is in the air year-round for Michaela Margida.

The 29-year-old University of Toledo PhD student who solves environmental problems through mathematical modeling prepares for Valentine’s Day with a passion to put a smile on the faces of hundreds of children with cancer or other chronic illnesses.

Michaela Margida started the Valentine Project seven years ago to brighten up the holiday for children with cancer and chronic illnesses.

“Valentine’s Day is all about love, but it can end up feeling isolating for those children because of social stigma associated with illness, appearance changes or absences from school,” Margida said. “Instead of being about the number of cards a child receives or whether someone has a crush on someone else, I wanted to take this holiday and reclaim it for these kids so they can forget about the way that illness affects their life just for a few minutes and feel special and loved.”

Margida, a childhood brain tumor survivor, and her brother, Gregory, created the Valentine Project seven years ago. The nonprofit organization collects care packages from volunteers around the world and ships them to children’s homes in time for Valentine’s Day.

It’s first year started with 80 children in Ohio. It has grown to nearly 1,000.

“For the first time this year, we branched out geographically,” Margida said. “My brother moved to San Francisco and started a branch in California.”

The Valentine Project’s local drop-off point — Margida’s home in the Old Orchard neighborhood adjacent to campus — recently received a care package for a 5-year-old girl that includes a U.S. puzzle, Wonder Woman doll, stuffed poodle, book, heart-shaped box of chocolates, and a pair of Disney leggings.

Margida and her mother, along with other volunteers, examine each donated care package to ensure all gifts are safe and age appropriate. They add to the packages, if needed, and then ship them to reach the children by Valentine’s Day.

This labor of love is a way of giving back after the acts of kindness her family received when Margida was a little girl.

“I was 5 years old when I started getting sick,” Margida said. “After I had surgery to remove the brain tumor, I had to learn to walk and feed myself again. Hearing stories of how family and friends supported my family during that incredibly hard and scary time by bringing us a meal or visiting us in the hospital taught me that small acts of kindness can mean so very much to people going through difficult times. Those acts of kindness and love kept my parents going. That’s the spirit of the Valentine Project.”

This time of year, the charity work is all-consuming. Margida credits her PhD adviser, Dr. Daryl Moorhead in the Department of Environmental Sciences, with helping impose order on her “sometimes crazy life.”

When not organizing care packages, Margida is focused on her research in plant litter decomposition.

“I am interested in what happens to the carbon dioxide stored inside leaves and other plant parts when they die,” Margida said.

Before she arrived at UT, Margida worked as a marine biology teacher for middle and high school students in Sarasota, Fla. She also volunteered with Jesuit Volunteer Corps to teach lower-income adults how to manage their electric bill through using less energy in Baltimore.

“I feel called to give back,” Margida said. “Life is happening right this moment, and we can all begin to make a difference today. Love is what will change the world.”

The Valentine Project is in need of volunteers and donations to help pay for shipping costs. Go to thevalentineproject.org to learn more. Registration begins in December to make a care package for Valentine’s Day 2019.