Team Sister Strong for LLS

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 On May 7, 2019, the O’Sullivan family of Rockaway got the news no parent ever wants to hear. Nine-year-old Siobhan O’Sullivan had leukemia. A year later, on May 14, 2020, another family in Broad Channel received the same news—10-year-old Rocco Pisani was also diagnosed with leukemia. Despite the devastating discoveries, the O’Sullivan and Pisani families found support within one another. Now they’re teaming up to pay it forward to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), an organization that aims to find better treatments than the ones Siobhan and Rocco have endured.

After seeing what her sister Siobhan had to go through, Mary Louis Academy (TMLA) sophomore, Julia O’Sullivan, is leading a mission to pay it forward to those who helped her family with Team Sister Strong. She’s running for LLS’ 2022 Students of the Year by finding creative ways to raise money for the organization. “It was really tough seeing Siobhan go through leukemia. She was 9 and I was 12, so I thought ‘how could she be going through this.’ She went through chemo, went through numerous hospital visits within weeks and it was really tough,” Julia O’Sullivan said. But by July of 2021, they got some relief. Siobhan had completed her treatments “She’s completely cancer free,” Julia O’Sullivan said.

And with that, Julia is now paying it forward. “I saw how difficult it was for me and my family to go through this and I don’t want to see other people going through what we went through and having it even worse than we did,” she said. Julia’s mom, Maura Ryan O’Sullivan explained that with efforts like Students of the Year, LLS is raising funds for research to make treatments, particularly for children, better going forward. “Right now, LLS is pushing this child initiative and 80% of money raised goes towards research and helping families. They hope to do research so childhood treatments can be updated because they’ve been using the same treatments for adults and they’re not really geared toward children,” Maura O’Sullivan said. So Julia is helping with that mission by running for Student of the Year. Competing among 26 other teams in New York, Julia is aiming to raise the most money, so she enlisted in the help of some of her TMLA friends, family and the Pisani family to form Team Sister Strong.

After being hit with the news of Rocco’s diagnosis, his mom, Jamie Pisani connected with Siobhan’s mom, Maura. “The first time I spoke to Maura, she gave me comfort and a hope that got me through this tough time. Her daughter Siobhan was in the background, and she had just gotten home from a day at the beach. Looking at Rocco laying in his bed being pumped with chemo, it was an image I couldn’t imagine for him in a year’s time, but Maura told me we’d get there, and I believed her. It was that hope that I leaned on during the hardest of times that followed, and that dream became a reality a year later,” Jamie Pisani said.

Rocco knows firsthand how rough leukemia treatments can be after running into several obstacles. He suffered from a traumatic anaphylactic reaction after being allergic to his first chemo treatment. Another chemo inflamed his intestines, leaving him unable to eat, and later resulting in an appendectomy. He also suffered from chemo toxicity, resulting in symptoms similar to a stroke. But despite such struggles, with a positive attitude and a little help, Rocco pulled through and is now doing maintenance.

Amid their treatments, a friendship formed between the two young locals going through the same tough journey. When Siobhan and Rocco had treatments at the same time, they booked beds next to each other. “It was nice to know there was someone that could tell me it was gonna be ok and what I was getting next and what it could be like,” Rocco said of Siobhan.

So when Julia reached out to the Pisani family and explained she was running for Student of the Year to help LLS, they were more than willing to assist. “I thought of all the people who donated to me when I was sick and if I could give back and help people to make it not as bad as what I went through, I want to help in whatever way I can,” Rocco Pisani said.

Julia and Rocco recently got together to discuss ways in which to help boost fundraising. With fundraising beginning January 13 and only seven weeks to fundraise through March 3, they’ve hit the ground running with creative ways to fundraise. Each Team Sister Strong teammate has an individual fundraising link, and online donations immediately started pouring in, including a generous sponsorship from Bungalow Bar.

This Saturday, January 22, Julia’s dad, Jerry O’Sullivan will be behind the stick offering up laughs and drinks at a fundraiser at RBQ (97-20 RBB) from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., while Kevin Carlton plays some live tunes. Liz Breslin-Smith of Blue Bungalow will be helping Julia by plugging the fundraiser on her Shopping Live with Liz feature. Julia is also coordinating fundraising events with TMLA.

Bungalow Bar has also agreed to host a big raffle drawing on Friday, February 11 at 7 p.m. with a DJ starting at 9 p.m. Four hundred $100 tickets are being sold for $10,000 worth of prizes ranging from $200 to $1,000. For tickets, see Rob Pisani on Facebook (Rob Barista) or at Bagel & Barista Station on Beach 116th Street. The Pisanis have also set up donation options at Bagel & Barista for customers when they check out.

The Rockaway/Breezy Point/ Broad Channel February break ski and snowboard trip to Elk Mountain is also an opportunity to fundraise. Jimmy Dowd of St. James clothing has donated the printing for t-shirts for the event and the fundraiser. Those who donate to compete in a run competition will receive a t-shirt and whoever has the most runs down the mountain will get a gift from the Elk Mountain gift shop.

Students of the Year teams cannot see how each team is doing but with all of the community support, the O’Sullivans say they’re already in good shape. “Rockaway is the most unique place in the entire world. Since Siobhan was diagnosed, people gave donations and helped cook and it has always just been overwhelming. Everyone has been supportive from the start,” Maura O’Sullivan said. “It feels really nice to know how many people want to help kids and all the people who are sick. I’m really grateful,” Rocco Pisani said.

While Team Sister Strong is off to a good start, every penny counts toward helping Julia become Student of the Year and LLS. In addition to the fundraising events, the easiest way to donate is online. All of the money goes towards Team Sister Strong but Julia’s link can be found at: https://events.lls.org/nyc/nycsoy22/josullivan  and Rocco’s link is: https://events.lls.org/nyc/nycsoy22/rpisani 

Rocco will also post updates on his Instagram account: fitnessforlife07

By Katie McFadden

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