Donor Spotlight: Leigh Olson

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Leigh Olson’s experience with the Lymphoma Research Foundation started in a doctor’s waiting room. It was 1999, and she was in Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago with her father for his first appointment after being diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL). At the time, Leigh knew little about the disease, treatment options, or the potential outcomes. But there in the waiting room was a pamphlet from the Cure for Lymphoma organization (which later became the Lymphoma Research Foundation). It’s what introduced her to the organization and started her role as an avid advocate and supporter of the Foundation’s mission.

About six months after her father went into remission, Leigh absconded with his Rolodex and began a letter-writing campaign to everyone he knew. When a Lymphoma Research Foundation board member caught wind of her efforts, they offered to match gifts received through the campaign up to $25,000. Leigh quickly raised her $25,000, and those funds and the match ended up supporting a significant research grant at the University of Chicago.

“It was empowering. It was my father’s illness creating an opportunity for someone else,” Leigh said.

Leigh has lived in several places across the United States and wherever she goes, she brings her passion for fundraising with her. When she moved from Chicago to Dallas, the Lymphoma Research Foundation’s leadership proposed that she set up a Dallas chapter – she did just that. She hit the ground running, starting a robust
fundraising program and hosting the Foundation’s first Dallas Lymphoma Walk in 2001.

Leigh recently hosted the 22nd Dallas Lymphoma Walk, which has now raised millions of dollars since its inception. Over the years, her three daughters have also joined her to raise funds for the Foundation – knocking on doors, running lemonade stands, the works. Leigh believes in showing her children the value of hard work for a good cause.

Today, 25 years later, Leigh serves as Secretary on the Foundation’s Board of Directors. At an event at a Miami area golf club that Leigh and her husband had just joined, they met Jerry and Barbara Freundlich, co-founders of the Lymphoma Research Foundation. This led to Leigh working with Barbara to set up Swirl, a new wine-tasting fundraising event series for the Foundation. Along the way, Leigh learned more about the workings of the Board and was elected to join in 2013.

While the pandemic put an end to several traditional fundraising events, Leigh has worked tirelessly to get people excited and involved with the Lymphoma Research Foundation again and has launched new programs to help achieve just that. One such event is the Foundation’s South Florida Golf Invitational, the first of which took place in April 2024. Leigh had a goal of raising $250,000 to $300,000 to support the Foundation’s mission and successfully raised more than $330,000.

“My strength is in fundraising and connecting people,” Leigh said. A statement that could not be truer.

From left, Ramesh Subrahmanian (Member, Board of Directors);
Robert Werner (Member Emeritus, Board of Directors);
Leigh Olson (Secretary, Board of Directors)

Through Leigh’s many fundraising endeavors, she has never lost sight of what these efforts help to achieve. “Raising a lot of money is always rewarding,” Leigh says, “but the common thread is the Lymphoma Research Foundation and all the good they do to support patients, caregivers, and their loved ones.”

Leigh enjoys attending the Foundation’s in-person educational events so she can see the sense of empowerment and relief that they bring to those who participate. “As much as I love fundraising, witnessing the impact on the lymphoma community from the Foundation’s resources can be even more rewarding.”

Leigh also notes that these events allow her to connect with others in the lymphoma community and encourage them to pay it forward just as she has for so many years. While Leigh knows that not everyone is immediately drawn to the fundraising process, she hopes that by interacting with people she can show them how easy and rewarding it can be. Leigh recalls meeting a lymphoma survivor in 2000 who told her, “I’m not a fundraiser.” Leigh continued to talk to the survivor about the important work that the Lymphoma Research Foundation does – education, research, and raising awareness – all of which were meaningful to the survivor. Today, that individual is one of the Foundation’s top fundraisers, demonstrating that she was more of a fundraiser than she had originally known.

“It’s really easy to sell the Lymphoma Research Foundation,” Leigh says.

Leigh’s passion for the Foundation is also motivated by the science the organization helps to advance. She notes how critical the Lymphoma Research Foundation’s research programming is in helping to fine-tune treatments and mitigate long-term side effects for survivors.

Sadly, Leigh’s father succumbed to a secondary infection a few years after his initial lymphoma diagnosis. But what brings Leigh hope today is witnessing how the treatment landscape continues to evolve, and her wish is that this can help other families impacted by lymphoma to have a different outcome. “If he had been diagnosed with stage four DLBCL today, perhaps it’d be another story.”

With 45 top lymphoma doctors collaborating on the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board and over $80M in lymphoma-specific research awarded to Foundation grantees, Leigh knows the future for those touched by this disease is getting brighter – and the funds Leigh raises help illuminate that path.

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Pulse is a publication of the Lymphoma Research Foundation, providing the latest updates on the Foundation and its focus on lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) research, awareness, and education