Ian Harding‘s dreamy English teacher Ezra Fitz burst into the hearts of future Lit majors who swooned over him on Pretty Little Liars. Now, his biggest fans have a chance to get up-close and personal with the star – while also helping a worthy cause.
On Thursday, the actor celebrated his 29th birthday by launching a campaign on CrowdRise, a charity crowdfunding platform, to raise money for research to cure lupus – the mysterious disease that has plagued his mother for more than 20 years.
“I was probably 7 or 8 when my mom was diagnosed,” Harding tells PEOPLE. “And so I knew that she had some disease, but I didn’t know the severity of what it could be, especially back then when the life expectancy [for the average person diagnosed] was 8 years.”
Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Because its symptoms are so varied, the disease can be difficult to diagnose and its effects can range from mild to life-threatening, according to the Lupus Foundation of America.
“It can be debilitating and life-threatening, but with medication, diet, and exercise, especially taking care of herself, my mom manages it,” Harding explains.
The actor has used his platform to spread awareness and fundraise for a cure ever since PLL debuted in 2010 and launched him into stardom.
“I decided to do this because I can’t put on a lab coat because god knows I can barely count – that’s not my job in this world,” Harding says. “My job is to entertain people, hopefully make people happy, and raise enough money for the really important people who are going to find a cure.”
Thanks to the support of his 1.9 million Twitter followers, Harding has already raised over $20,000 for lupus research. His advocacy has also led to increased awareness amongst the demographic most at risk of developing lupus – young women.
“I met a girl at the Walk to End Lupus who said she kept on going to doctors but they couldn’t figure out what she had,” Harding explains. “But because she had seen me tweeting about it she asked, ‘Could it be lupus?’ And lo and behold, that was the diagnosis.”
Now, Harding is offering fans the chance of a lifetime: to fly to New York and join him at the Lupus Foundation of America’s Evening of Hope Gala for a private meet-and-greet and two seats at his table.
He’s also offering some pretty remarkable consolation prizes, including a wake-up message from the actor for your cellphone, pillow and cellphone cases with his face on them, social media shout-outs and a personal livestream.
Harding explains the idea for the pillowcases came directly from the fans.
“For a while I Skyped with fans and several of them had made their own pillowcases with my face on them,” he explains. “It still blows my mind that someone would want to wake up to my face every morning, but I wanted to give people something authentic.”
Fans can enter for a chance to win by donating as little as $10 to Harding’s CrowdRise page. Best of luck to all.