The Ruchalski family traveled to Sag Harbor on March 11 to visit a bench they dedicated to their daughter and sister, Mary, who died of cancer last March 11, at age 12.
The stunning ocean view from the bench was not the only beauty to behold. A hundred painted stones, made by Mary’s classmates at St. Agnes Cathedral School, lay around the bench, with messages about her. “Missing your smile,” read one, signed by a boy named Patrick. Another said, “A beautiful soul is never forgotten.”
“It was a beautiful sight,” said Mary’s mother, Carol. Mary wanted to return to Sag Harbor, where the Ruchalskis have a summer home, while she was sick, but she was unable to, Carol added. The bench, which sits on the beach, is Mary’s heaven, in a sense. “I can see her there, you know?” her mother said.
In January 2017, Mary, then a sixth-grader at St. Agnes Cathedral School, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that affects muscle tissue. She died two days before her 13th birthday, after a 14-month battle with the disease, but her family has kept her memory alive.
“Mary said to me right before she passed, ‘Please don’t give up on me,’” Carol recalled. “And I’m not, I’m not. As long as I live, I’m going to try and get as much money for research so we don’t have another story like this. Unfortunately, there’s so many.”
Community support after Mary’s death was tremendous, family members noted. The Ruchalskis set up a fund at St. Agnes Cathedral School for people who wanted to donate money in her memory. Those contributions funded last year’s inaugural $2,500 scholarship for a St. Agnes student who exhibits qualities similar to Mary’s, and this year are set to go toward “spiritwear” for sports teams Mary would have played on — basketball, lacrosse, softball and soccer — and a class trip for her eighth-grade class, which includes her twin brother, John.
In June, Carol, her husband, Francis, and their three children started the Mary Ruchalski Foundation to fund research for rhabdomyosarcoma and to help families impacted by cancer. In less than a year, it has raised about $150,000, which has aided about a dozen families affected by pediatric cancer cover various expenses and helped fund various research projects.
The events and fundraisers are done with Mary’s interests in mind. She loved the water and was a strong swimmer, and the foundation held its first Mary’s Cup last July 22, an interclub swim meet between members of the Rockville Links and the Hempstead Country Club that raised about $100,000.
“There was such love and enthusiasm in the air,” said Mary’s sister Lyndsey, 22. “. . . We couldn’t have been happier with how it came out, whether it would have been 50 people or the 600 people who came.”
The week before Christmas, Lyndsey and Carol visited Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, where Mary had been treated, and gave out 100 Roku digital media players to patients in the pediatric unit. “You can’t live something that we’ve been through with Mary and not return the favor,” Lyndsey said.
Because Mary loved playing basketball, soccer, softball and lacrosse, the foundation is also trying to start a #PlayLikeMary initiative, in which high school and college teams can help raise money at games and events. Last weekend, Mary’s other sister, Ashley, 25, visited her alma mater, Siena College, where she helped organize a lacrosse game, sold T-shirts and raised $700.
Every bit of money adds up, and the foundation has given about $40,000 directly to families affected by cancer and $55,000 to research initiatives, including a two-year project funded by 10 family groups that focuses specifically on fighting rhabdomyosarcoma. “It’s cool to see that you can be part of these changes,” Ashley said.
Carol said that friends, strangers and local businesses have held events to benefit the foundation or donated after hearing Mary’s story. One friend of Mary’s held a bake sale, she noted, and others went Christmas caroling for her.
“They just want to do something in her memory so badly, and they try to be like Mary,” Carol said. “That, for me, is such a great way to let her live on.”
The instances of children getting involved in what the family called “the movement” is the most rewarding part, Ashley and Lyndsey agreed. “That’s the whole purpose,” Ashley said. “You want people to help give back and do good.”
The Mary Ruchalski Foundation became an accredited nonprofit organization in January. It is set to hold its second Mary’s Cup on July 21.
“She was such a bright light. I feel like she’s here,” Carol said. “She’s guiding us.”
For more information, or to donate, visit www.themaryruchalskifoundation.org.