Each September, Rockville Centre residents gather at Village Hall for a special tree-lighting ceremony, where they “Light it Up Gold” to kick off pediatric cancer awareness month.
The annual event celebrates the memory of Mary Ruchalski, a seventh-grader at the St. Agnes Cathedral school who died in March 2018, just two days before her 13th birthday, of rhabdomyosarcoma — a rare cancer.
“For bereaved parents, September is a stark reminder that their child’s life was cut short, and there will be no new beginnings,” Ruchalski said. “My Mary would be starting her senior year of high school and excitingly looking for colleges. She was so full of life and love and kindness that it pains me to think of how much she suffered.”
Ruchalski said that children with cancer will often endure toxic and outdated treatment plans, and even develop secondary cancers from their treatments. “Does this sound right?” she asked. “Is this the best we can do in 2022? Why can’t our country figure this out? 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 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 ceremony has since spread to other Long Island communities, including Malverne, Lynbrook, East Williston, Mineola, each of which holds its own community events.
The ceremony on Sept. 1 night began with a prayer led by the Rev. Michael Duffy, the pastor of St. Agnes Cathedral, who blessed the pine tree on the village lawn, which was adorned with golden lights and community members for their endeavors to help the sick and their families.
“We ask your blessing upon us as we gather to fight pediatric cancer,” Duffy said. “As we gather in memory of Mary and of all those who have been stricken with this disease, we pray in a special way for those who have passed away that they may have eternal peace. For those who mourn them and miss them, that they may find comfort. For those who are currently sick, and for their families and caregivers, that they may receive strength and healing, and wholeness.”
After the prayer, Mayor Francis Murray presented Ruchalski with a special proclamation for her dedication to the cause.
“Rockville Centre started recognizing this terrible disease many years ago,” Murray said, adding that he and his wife became even more involved in the foundation after his young niece died of neuroblastoma a few years ago. “There is one resident in our village who has gone so far beyond what others would do, and she continues to do so in recognizing and bringing people together. And that’s why we’re all here tonight.”
Gold bows and luminarias were lit by friends, family and members of the community in support of the foundation’s message, illuminating the village in a golden glow. All of the proceeds from the sale of the bows and luminarias go to benefit the foundation, which to date has raised over $300,000 for rhabdomyosarcoma research at Cold Spring Harbor laboratories, and has given out more than $100,000 to families.
“I want to take a moment to thank our young people that are here tonight,” Ruchalski said. “I’m so overwhelmed. Young people, teammates, classmates, friends, total strangers who have helped me have met to have a voice for Mary. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate a life than this.”
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.
“It takes caring individuals like yourselves to support our foundation and to help us not only remember my sweet Mary, but all the other fighters who have gone before her, simply because there were not adequate options for their care,” Ruchalski added as she prepared to light the tree with a big red button. “The lights from this tree and the lanterns, I believe, can be seen from heaven and beyond. And I know that our angels are very proud.”