- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

NORTHPORT, N.Y. (AP) - Their annual fundraising galas rivaled the elegance of state dinners and inaugural balls.

There were black ties and colorful dresses, celebrity guests and eclectic dishes, all within the stately setting of a mansion on the North Shore of New York’s Long Island.

In the decade since a beloved teacher’s grim diagnosis, the students of Northport High School have raised more than $3 million for ALS research - a feat heralded in the research and philanthropic communities, as well as their own.

Now, after a final, later-than-usual gala Thursday, the students and alumni who transformed the gala from an afterschool activity into a 50-member committee and a full-fledged nonprofit are rebooting their mission in hopes of replicating it in schools across the country.

Schools in Texas and Nevada, and several other districts on Long Island, have already shown interest, Northport senior Matthew Nelson said. The organization will continue to raise money through broader events - a 5K race has been proposed - while spreading their message using the time previously spent organizing the annual “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” gala.

“We’ve accomplished so much and built such a strong legacy,” Northport senior Morgan Troiano said. “But at the same time it is imperative to involve other schools and spread the word about ALS and its devastating effects.”

Kathryn Davis, the administrative director of the ALS research center at Johns Hopkins University, called the students an inspiration and a model for student-led philanthropy. The organization donated more than $150,000 to the center over the last three years and regularly sends students to Baltimore to observe and assist in research.

“There’s still no cure for this disease and there’s still so much that needs to be done,” Davis said. “They give a lot of us hope.”

The fundraising started in 2004 with a 3-on-3-basketball tournament a few months after science teacher David Deutsch revealed he had ALS - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - the debilitating neurological disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The students started with a goal of $1,000. They wound up presenting a check for $32,000 to Hopkins’ Robert Packard Center for ALS Research.

More than 400 people attended the first gala the following January, at $150 a ticket. In the years since, attendees have included former Yankees and Mets pitcher David Cone; actress Edie Falco, a Northport alumna best known for her work on “The Sopranos;” and Olympic champion figure skater Sarah Hughes.

“It definitely grew into something we really never imagined,” faculty adviser Don Strasser said.

But after a decade, Strasser said, the spirit of innovation waned. The process of planning the event became boilerplate. And donations dropped, from about $521,000 in 2012 to $414,000 last year.

Deutsch’s death, a week after the 2012 event, and the loss of other ALS patients the students had befriended, took a toll. So, too, has time: the committee’s current seniors were in elementary school when Deutsch was diagnosed and know of him, and the early days of the fundraiser, secondhand.

Strasser believes broadening the students’ focus will rejuvenate the organization.

“If the next 10 years means getting our story out to other schools, to show them what they can do, that would be a great future for us,” Strasser said.

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