Nearly 200 people gathered in front of Village Hall in Rockville Centre on Thursday night for the annual tree lighting ceremony in recognition of Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month.
The annual tradition is held every year at the start of September in memory of Mary Ruchalski, a seventh-grader at St. Agnes Cathedral School who died in March 2018 of rhabdomyosarcoma — a rare form of cancer.
“This is our foundation sixth year lighting this tree and for me, especially this year, Mary’s absence is never more apparent,” her mother, Carol Ruchalski, said. “This year Mary would have been heading off to college and her absence from this milestone is mine and my family’s everyday reality.”
The Mary Ruchalski Foundation was created in 2018 in the hopes of spreading awareness and raising money for research to help families with children who are affected by the disease.
The annual ceremony has since spread other communities across Long Island including Malverne, Lynbrook, East Williston, and Mineola, each of which holds its own community event in recognition of the fight against pediatric cancer.
“What happens when you bring people together who are passionate advocates supported by an outstanding community like ours? You bring change,” Ruchalski said during the ceremony.
She said this became apparent to her when she recently visited with Dr. Chris Vakoc at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who recently shared the progress of his groundbreaking research to develop a drug to treat rhabdomyosarcoma, which would be the first of its kind and completely transform the way cancer is treated.
“He just published his findings stating that many pediatric cancer foundation’s, ours included, have come together to help fund research to find new therapeutic strategies,” Ruchalski said. “The take away was a new scientific breakthrough that could someday help save children’s lives and revolutionize cancer treatments as we know it — That’s changing the picture. That’s what your continued support is doing.”
For six years, Vakoc’s lab has been on a mission to transform sarcoma cells into regularly functioning tissue cell, and have found a way to do so using genome-editing technology.
“I guess Mary is putting me in the path to change the picture,” she said. “On this night, and in this month, let’s remember Mary and Gina and Kimmy and Anthony and Gavin and Dylan and all those warriors who have battled this disease by helping to change the picture.”
The tree-lighting ceremony on Aug. 31 opened with a few words by Mayor Francis Murray who presented Ruchalski with a special proclamation for her continued efforts toward finding a cure.
“We’re all here because we’re champions, and we’re going to beat this someday,” Murray said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I appreciate everyone who’s involved in this. This cancer affects every one of us here, looking up at us and looking back at you. We all have a story. We all have a sadness. We have to stop pediatric cancer in America in our lifetimes.”
On Aug. 29, just prior to the ceremony, the Mary Ruchalski Foundation presented a check for $100,000 to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. To date, the foundation has raised close to a half-million dollars for research on new pharmaceutical treatments specifically for rhabdomyosarcoma, and has given more than $100,000 to other families of childhood cancer patients facing financial hardships.
To learn more about the foundation and ways to help, visit TheMaryRuchalskiFoundation.org.