In September, the goal for several Rockville Centre residents is to see the village lit up with gold in honor of Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, and several campaigns are taking place to get others involved in the effort. The second annual lighting of a gold tree was scheduled for Tuesday at Village Hall, and efforts are under way to have the streets lit with luminarias later this month, with proceeds going to the Mary Ruchalski Foundation.
Village resident Mary Ruchalski, a seventh-grader at St. Agnes Cathedral School, died of cancer in March 2018, just two days before her 13th birthday.
“The foundation is trying to step up its awareness campaign,” said her mother, Carol, the foundation’s director. “We reached out to other villages and to several high schools, and provided them with gold lights if they promise to light them every year.”
Last year, a tree in the village green was decorated with gold lights and a ceremony honored those affected by pediatric cancer. This year, gold trees will be lit in four other villages — East Williston, Mineola, Malverne and Williston Park — as well as at two area high schools, to bring awareness to the disease.
Ruchalski said she wanted a special way to honor her daughter. “Mary and I always loved Christmas, and we wanted to do something different, so I had the idea of lighting a tree,” she said. “Everyone has a tree in their village, and when no other lights are on and people see a gold tree, they’ll take notice.”
Finding strings of gold lights wasn’t easy, she said, but the foundation was able to provide 2,500 to 3,000 lights to each participating village. The foundation planned to light the tree in East Williston on Wednesday and the one in Mineola the following night, followed by Malverne on Sept. 10 and Williston Park at a date to be determined. Trees will also be lit at Kellenberg Memorial High School, in Uniondale, and Sacred Heart Academy, in Hempstead.
“If this takes off, I think it will be a really great fundraiser,” Ruchalski said. “I’m thrilled that so many people jumped on the bandwagon.”
New to the awareness campaign this year are the luminarias, weighted paper bags with battery-operated tea lights that will decorate participating neighborhoods. Rockville Centre resident Jaime Madden said she had heard about their use elsewhere, and was struck by the image. She said she had always felt connected to the Ruchalski family and to Mary’s story, and suggested the luminarias to her mother.
“I thought it would be a nice way to raise awareness, bring the community together and raise funds,” Madden said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that the research is so lacking for pediatric cancer, and the medications used for treatment are the same as they were using decades ago. My vision is that it will be a beautiful way to . . . bring money to the Mary Ruchalski Foundation.”
The idea caught on quickly. Madden said that within 24 hours of posting on social media, she had nearly 40 inquiries from people wanting to participate. As of press time, the residents of 46 blocks in the village have committed to lighting up their streets by placing the luminarias on their curbs Sept. 18 to 20 (rain date Sept. 25 to 27). For longer blocks, she said, people can team up. For example, she said, three mothers have formed a team to light up Harvard Avenue.
“The response to this campaign has been really amazing,” Madden said.
The luminarias can be purchased at Jeannine’s Gifts for $5, or through Madden, who will deliver large orders. Participants can opt to become “block coordinators” and get their neighbors on board to light up an entire street. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Residents can also purchase gold bows for their homes or trees at Art Flower and Gift Shoppe for $10. Store owner Keith Linsalata said his shop has raised funds for the foundation for several years. Two years ago, more than $7,000 in proceeds from the sale of roses went to the organization, and last year the store began selling the weather-proof gold bows, and raised $4,700.
Linsalata said that members of the Ruchalski family have been longtime customers, and that Mary’s diagnosis and death “hit home really hard.” Selling the bows every year, he said, is a sustainable way to continue raising money for the foundation.
“At the end of the day,” Linsalata said, “the last thing we want is for our children to suffer. We want to help any way we can.”
“I’m blown away that in these hard times, the whole community is coming together,” Ruchalski said. “It’s such a tribute to Mary.”