Sean O’Toole, of Oyster Bay, has a beautiful memory of his Aunt Bonnie McCarthy. It was Palm Sunday, and the entire family was gathered at his grandmother’s house when they hit the lawn for an impromptu game of wiffle ball. Even though his aunt was sick and dying of melanoma cancer, she could whack the ball with the best of them. “She was a strong woman,” remembered Sean, 16.
Though his aunt lost her battle with melanoma in 2010, Sean, his sister Caleigh, 15, and brother Colin, 12, have diligently worked to keep her memory alive and raise awareness of the disease that killed her. This past May, that effort received a big boost when the O’Toole siblings’ fundraising efforts resulted in two sun shields to be installed over the lacrosse field dugouts behind the James H. Vernon School.
“The shields come just over the bench used by athletes during practice and games,” Caleigh said. “They have venting in the top so you aren’t trapping heat in there, and they have UV protection on the outside so players can protect their backs when the sun beats down.”
The back of the sun shields bears the message, “Melanoma is color blind. Be sun smart, always wear a hat, sunglasses, shirt and sunscreen.” It’s something the siblings hope will resonate with everyone in the community.
Sitting on their back patio covered by a great big overhead umbrella that blocks the sun, the O’Toole siblings are a picture of poise, commitment and heartfelt passion for the cause that began soon after they lost their aunt.
“I was sitting in my basement a year after she passed,” said Caleigh, who was especially close to her aunt, “and I knew I wanted to do something to make a difference and raise awareness. I was only 7 then, so I didn’t grasp how it worked, but knew I wanted to do something.”
Caleigh figured it out pretty quickly. She drew up donation signs with colorful markers and set them up at her brothers’ Police Athletic League baseball games asking for contributions to fight against skin cancer. Caleigh eventually started writing to sun block companies asking for samples to hand out to people who donated. The companies did so happily, and Caleigh started receiving UPS packages in the mail with hundreds of sun block samples. She said the response she received from the Oyster Bay community was equally amazing. In the first year, she raised more than $500.
Eventually the O’Tooles became involved in the annual Miles for Melanoma/Steps to Stop Skin Cancer 5K Walk/Run hosted by the Colette Coyne Melanoma Awareness Campaign. Calling themselves the Bonnie Brigade, they’ve successfully encouraged their family, friends and the community to walk with them in the fundraiser held at Eisenhower Park. To date, their efforts have raised over $9,000 for CCMAC.
The O’Toole siblings have developed a close relationship with CCMAC over the years. In fact, the organization donated the two sun shields at Vernon School after Caleigh and her brothers appeared before the local school board to request permission.
“We said, be polite, be respectful, but make your point,” said their father, Sean, 49. By all accounts it was sound advice. The school board gave a resounding yes and a year later the shields were installed. “We’re so proud of them,” he said.
The feedback from the community, he said, has been incredible too, especially from the people it benefits most.
“I have multiple friends on the lacrosse team, and they love it,” said Colin, whose own fair skin is covered in freckles. “A lot of them are very fair and get sunburned, especially during practice, so the shields are really helpful for them.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, and most cases are preventable. The O’Tooles hope that by raising awareness they can encourage people to take necessary precautions by using a decent amount of sunscreen, no tanning oils and going for yearly screenings. They’re also excited to see the sun shield program expand. It’s now being considered by a park in Syosset, and Caleigh says she may reach out to try and get the students in Syosset involved.
Whatever she does, it’s clear Caleigh and her brothers plan to continue their efforts in a big way. “I honestly don’t see them stopping,” said their father, “because it’s a message they’ve gotten out to their friends for years. I see it going on to the next level when they are in college and as they become professionals.”
Sean thinks that their Aunt Bonnie would be proud of them. He said she went through a hard battle she wouldn’t have wished on anyone.
“She didn’t know the sun was dangerous and could cause cancer,” added Caleigh. “Awareness makes a difference.”