In an effort to raise awareness of pediatric cancer, the Village of Lynbrook held a special tree lighting ceremony on Monday night to “light it up gold” in honor of the Mary Ruchalski Foundation.
Mary Ruchalski was a seventh grade student at St. Agnes Cathedral school in Rockville Centre, who died just two days before her 13th birthday in March 2018 of a rare cancer known as rhabdomyosarcoma.
Her mother, Carol Ruchalski, created the foundation in memory of her daughter, who would have been headed into her senior year of high school.
“September is always so full of beginnings and possibilities but for bereaved parents like Marie and myself it’s a stark reminder that our child is not here,” Ruchalski said. “She was so full of life, love, and kindness that it pains me to think of how much you suffer.”
Ruchalski said that children with cancer would endure toxic and outdated treatment plans and many times develop secondary cancers from their treatments.
“Does this sound right to you? Is this the best our country can do in the year 2022? I just can’t figure this out,” she said. “So here we are. Three families with pediatric cancer. Pediatric cancer does not get the attention and necessary funding from our government to encourage aggressive research and development of less toxic treatments for our youngest cancer warriors.”
According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, only 4 percent of federal funding for cancer research goes to help stop pediatric cancer, which Ruchalski referred to as a “sinful statistic.”
“The fact is that we need an awareness month for our littlest residents, our littlest people, our own children,” Lynbrook Village Trustee Ann Marie Reardon said. “There are hundreds of thousands of kids worldwide diagnosed with childhood cancers every year, however when it comes down to federal funding for research they’re less than four percent. These are our little ones and we have to fight for them.”
Reardon said she has so much respect for the families of those fighting for cancer research in honor of their loved ones.
“We need to make awareness. We need to have our neighbors, our residents, everyone aware that we need to continue this fight for these kids,” Reardon said. “I’m very happy that we are and the village lighting the tree gold tonight and I do thank everyone for their support.”
The Mary Ruchalski Foundation was created in 2018, with the hope of spreading awareness and raising money for research to help families with children who are affected by the disease.
The tree-lighting tradition first began in the nearby Village of Rockville Centre and has since spread to other Long Island communities, including Malverne, East Williston, and Mineola, each of which holds its own community events.
A ceremony was held in the evening on Sept. 12, where members of the Village Board helped light the tree in memory of Mary Ruchalski and Gina Giallombardo, a 2006 graduate of South Side High School who died of the same disease in 2011.
Also in attendance were Mike Graham, a fire commissioner and long-time Oceanside resident, and his wife, Rachel, who launched the “CoopStrong” campaign, named for his now 8-month-old son Cooper, after he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer often found in the small glands on top of the kidneys, which predominantly affects children ages 5 and younger.
Following the ceremony, Ruchalski was presented with a proclamation from Lynbrook Mayor Alan Beach for all her hard work raising awareness and funds for cancer research.
To date, the Mary Ruchalski Foundation has raised over $300,000 for rhabdomyosarcoma research at Cold Spring Harbor laboratories, and has given out more than $100,000 to families.
Since the foundation began its mission, others have taken it upon themselves to create programs like “Be Like Mary,” and “Play 4 Mary,” to help spread their message.
“We’re going to make a change. We have to do this,” Ruchalski said.
She added that each day 47 children will be diagnosed with cancer, and one in five of them will die from it.
“It takes caring individuals like yourselves to support our foundation and help us not only to remember my sweet Mary, and Gina, and Cooper, but for all the other minors who do not receive adequate options for their care,” she said. “The lights from this tree, I believe, can be seen from heaven and above and I know that our angels are very proud. Thank you and God bless you for coming out.”