By Margot Cleary
Chelsea Fernandes, who is 17 and a senior at South Hadley High School, has floppy bangs and braces. She hates to talk in front of crowds, and loves Japanese rock music and anime. She doesn't want to stray more than a few miles from home when she starts college next year.
Pretty ordinary, right?
In spring 2005 Fernandes heard about CHAMPS--the Children Against Mines Program--and it would soon consume her life. Sponsored by the Marshall Legacy Institute, a Virginia nonprofit, CHAMPS educates U.S. schoolchildren about the land-mine threat in other nations, and suggests ways they can help an effort that trains dogs to detect the mines.
Fernandes' mother, Linda, works at Mount Holyoke College, and she's a friend of the Marshall Legacy Institute's chairman, Anthony Lake, who used to teach at the college. When Linda Fernandes mentioned CHAMPS to her daughter, Chelsea was curious.
Until then, her knowledge of land mines was sketchy: "I thought they were used in World War II and they were gone." From the CHAMPS Web site she learned the threat from unexploded mines remains in countries with more recent conflicts--Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and many others. She also learned that it costs $20,000 to train a dog and its handler.
She could raise that, Fernandes decided.
Her campaign began with a flourish: a visit from a retired land mine dog and Lake himself, who joined her at an assembly she arranged at the Mosier Elementary School to get kids interested in her first event--a walkathon. She didn't find out she'd be one of the speakers until she was heading down the hall to the gym. "It was like torture for me," she says now, squirming at the memory.
On the day of the walkathon Fernandes was ready. She and her mother had loaded up on snacks and water the night before at BJ's Wholesale Club, courtesy of Mount Holyoke. The walk was set to begin at 9.
"We're waiting, and we're waiting, and we're waiting," she recalled recently. "Eventually we had to start."
"We" consisted of Fernandes, her sister, Kassandra, two local men, including John Scibak, South Hadley's state representative, and the retired land mine dog, Rosa.
They walked 3 miles on a route that began at the Mosier School and ended up on Route 116, and stayed until the official end time, 1 p.m., in case any children showed up, tardy though they might be. "We thought maybe somebody would come," Fernandes says.
No one did.
"I wasn't discouraged," she says of the pitiful turnout. "I was just mad … and it just seemed sad that nobody would do something for a cause like that. It just made me want to do it more."
So she turned to Mount Holyoke again, and got an encouraging response to a fundraising letter. Linda Fernandes contributed the proceeds from the sale of a baby grand piano she'd inherited.
Mother and daughter began manning tables at grocery stores and craft fairs to talk up CHAMPS. Thanks to Mount Holyoke's news office, the campaign started to get some press. "And people just kept sending checks," Fernandes says.
She contacted celebrities to ask for autographs she could auction off. She held a car wash, and a raffle. John Scibak, impressed by Fernandes' tenacity, co-wrote a letter to South Hadley businesses seeking support. "There are lessons to be learned," he says. "When you have a good idea, something you think is worthwhile be persistent."
The final push came at a Marshall Legacy gala in May at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. Fernandes wore a striking blue dress--the same dress she'd wear to her prom a few weeks later--and Linda Fernandes says her daughter was "the belle of the ball." At the gala, she connected with a California foundation and a Virginia businessman, and got donations that put her over the top. Soon after, Fernandes wrote a check for $20,000 to the Marshall Legacy Institute.
This summer, she traveled with a Marshall Legacy group to Bosnia--despite the scars of war, "a beautiful country," she says--and visited a kennel where "recruits" waited. She walked to the end of the line, and came upon a dog that just seemed right. "He looked at me and went"--here she tilts her head to the side, fetchingly. "I loved him." She got to name the dog, settling on one that's a thank you to her hometown for its support--despite that rocky start. The dog's name is South Hadley.