Positive things were happening in Rockville Centre last week, and dozens of people experienced the good vibes firsthand through random acts of kindness. South Side High School graduate Tommy Maher, of the Honor Network, started a “pay it forward” campaign in memory of Mary Ruchalski, surprising many customers of Lacrosse Unlimited and CJ’s Coffee Shop with free gifts.
“Mary was a very outgoing and loving young girl who succumbed to her battle with cancer at the age of 12,” Maher said in a Facebook post. “Mary was always active, loved riding her bicycle and loved lacrosse. Even in her sickness, she would worry about others who were sick around her. She made a huge impact on the lives of those who knew her in her short life, but her legacy will live a long, long time.”
The campaign started on Oct. 10, when Maher bought a bucket of lacrosse balls at Lacrosse Unlimited, on North Long Beach Road, and then asked the store to give free balls to customers. Each one had an honor card attached to it with a photograph of Mary, who loved to play lacrosse. She was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects muscle tissue, in January 2017, as a sixth-grader at St. Agnes Cathedral School, and died 14 months later, two days shy of her 13th birthday.
“People have been really surprised,” Lacrosse Unlimited employee Tyler Hairston said, adding of Maher, “I think what he’s doing is awesome. He’s spreading a good message.”
The next morning, Maher brought his campaign a few doors down the block to CJ’s Coffee Shop. There he left $400 to pay for food and beverages throughout the day. Every customer who received a free meal or coffee also received an honor card with Mary’s photo on it.
“The most remarkable attribute of Mary Ruchalski was her smile,” said Maher, “and her ability to make others smile.”
The goal, he said, was to honor her memory by bringing smiles to the faces of others. While this was the effect it had on most recipients, some people were brought to tears. “People have gotten emotional and been very touched by it,” Loreen Lawrence, whose family owns CJ’s Coffee Shop, said of their customers’ reactions to receiving free meals. She added, “One woman was so moved, she started crying.”
Lawrence said she had followed Maher online and was aware of the Honor Network, a nonprofit organization that formed after the Route 91 shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017. It performs random acts of kindness in honor of the 58 victims who lost their lives, and encourages others to spread love throughout their communities.
“Tommy has traveled across the country doing this, and we were honored he decided to come here and allow us to be a part of it,” Lawrence said. “People are so shocked, and it’s really nice because then they learn about the foundation.”
Mary’s family formed the Mary Ruchalski Foundation after her death in 2018. It works to raise awareness about pediatric cancers and money to fund pediatric cancer research. It also provides support for pediatric cancer patients and their families, and has created a scholarship in Mary’s name.
Lawrence said that when she explained to customers what the Mary Ruchalski Foundation does, some began sharing their own stories. “It’s a way for the community to connect,” she said.
When given a free meal, Lawrence said, some people were unsure how to react. “We tell them it’s a random act of kindness in the name of Mary, and we want to spread the love,” she said. “We tell them to remember this kindness and try to pay it forward however you can.”
One customer took action immediately by paying for the customer behind her. “It’s a small community and it’s nice to come together in that way, by spreading random acts of kindness,” Lawrence said.
Maher said he chose CJ’s because it’s a “place where everyone feels like family.”
“Mary was all about family,” he said, “and when you were around her, she made you feel like family.”
When Mary’s mother, Carol Ruchalski, heard about the kindness being spread in the name of her daughter, she was thrilled.
“It’s such an honor for our family,” she said, “and for Mary.”