I've always been a firm believer that there are NO coincidences in this life...and recently we experienced one of those moments that has forever changed our lives for the better. Where do I even begin with this incredible story? Well, to start, this year we made the decision to expand the Hannah Duffy Memorial Community Service Scholarship program to all graduating seniors within Monmouth County -- remember the no coincidences? As you read on, you will understand exactly why there are no coincidences, just moments that are 'meant to be'. Students are required to write an essay as part of our application process, and this story revolves around one of those essays.
In mid April, I was in Sarasota, Florida, participating in a playground build for the Where Angels Play Foundation. After the playground was completed, we had an opportunity to spend some time on the beach while at our hotel. I read this essay for the first time while sitting on the beach and I was brought to sobbing tears -- it was so beautiful, and so unexpected that the tears just started flowing. And, looking back, I was meant to read it at that exact moment on that beautiful beach...Hannah would not have wanted it any other way since she absolutely LOVED the beach and I could 'feel' her with me as I was reading.
To give a little bit of background before I share this beautiful essay, we need to go back to the beginning, to when Hannah was first diagnosed with brain cancer. I remember sitting in a conference room in the hospital with her oncology team just days after her biopsy surgery in early October 2012 and heard words that still haunt me to this day ("malignant, anaplastic astrocytoma, gliomatosis cerebri, terminal," and much more I can't even remember now since I think I stopped listening after I heard the word terminal...) – but, after hearing all the bad news the very first question that came out of my mouth was, “can she still play soccer?” The news itself was devastating enough but to have to go back into her room and tell her that she could never play again was more than I could bear. Her oncologist made a deal with her – as long as she felt up to it, she could play, but she had to promise to wear protective head gear and no headers. As much as it pained her to agree to never head the ball again, she agreed if it meant she would be allowed back on the field! And, back on the field she went, on October 17th, 2012, just seventeen days after brain surgery. After so much heartbreak and stress, just to see Hannah suited up and on the field with her friends and teammates that day was enough for us. But, it wasn’t enough for her – she was determined to play, and no one was going to stop her.
So, that brings me to the incredible essay we received from a Wall Township student...no coincidences...
On October 17, 2012 I woke up feeling very special. Like every other birthday, my family showered me with gifts before I left for school. At school my friends decorated my locker. After school I had a soccer game at a nearby town. Soccer was my life then and still is today, I love the game. In my head this was going to be the most perfect birthday; it was our last game of an amazing undefeated season, I was the captain of the team, and we were playing Tinton Falls who had a losing record. However, this game seemed different, starting with the unusually large crowd. Most games that season we would blow teams away, but it was halftime and we were tied 1-1 to one of the last teams in the division. The next 35 minutes flew by and much to my surprise we were going into overtime, golden goal. Within the first five minutes, Tinton Falls gained possession of the ball, played it over top to a forward, who took the ball out of the air and attacked our goal.
Our scholarship committee members also felt such emotion after reading this particular essay and the decision was made to create an additional award for Most Impactful Essay, beginning this year. Had we not expanded the scholarship program this year, we never would have had the opportunity to meet Maggie -- this was no coincidence, it was just meant to be. John & I were so proud and honored to meet Maggie and present her with the scholarship during the Wall HS Academic Awards Ceremony a few weeks ago. She truly is a special soul, and now our families are intertwined forever, all because of one fateful soccer game almost six years ago.
Hannah’s greatest fear was that she was going to be forgotten. To know she is remembered with kindness, compassion and inclusion is the greatest gift our family could ever receive. A beautiful legacy, for sure.
Defining moments for two young girls, both with far reaching impacts beyond what either could have ever imagined. Love ALWAYS wins, for sure.
A little over a year ago we were introduced to the Where Angels Play Foundation, an incredible organization with a simple mission -- "to create joyful places to play and a return to family values in the wake of tragedy." From the very first moment we met this army of angels, we felt an incredible bond...it's hard to put in to words but I truly feel that Hannah brought us all together, not only to build her beautiful angel playground here in our hometown of Tinton Falls, but she's given us another family. Since Hannah's playground build, we have been blessed to take part in the construction of additional playgrounds in NJ, Boston and PA, and we look forward to taking part in many future projects as well. There is something so special about being able to bring joy in the wake of grief and pain...many days it is very difficult and the tears come without warning, but during this process there are also many smiles too. For us, we have been able to channel our own grief into something positive, both with our own foundation as well as through Where Angels Play. This has also given Robbie a gift greater than anything we could possibly teach him on our own...a community of friends who have shown him what it means to pay it forward - to be part of something bigger than himself - a beautiful gift for another family and community, a growing self-confidence, and, of course, camaraderie with a bunch of crazy firemen!
Robbie was the foreman during Hannah's playground build and he's very proud of his sissy's playground. We visit quite often and I also find myself stopping by just to sit or walk around the park...from the moment it was decided to build on the site at Liberty Park, I could feel Hannah's presence all around. She sends us SO many signs but I especially feel her with us at the park, and there's not a doubt in my mind that she loves every last detail. I have a story for another day about the power of our angel and how we believe she knew of her beautiful playground way before we did, but this blog post is about Robbie and the love he has for his sissy. During one of our recent stops to the playground, Robbie told us that it would be really awesome if we could add swings. I agreed that it would be an awesome addition, to which he replied, "ok, mama, call Bill and tell him I want swings!" He then asked me, "how can we get money? "You" need a fundraiser". I have to admit, I was pretty impressed and quite proud that at six years old he knew that we needed to raise money in order to get the swings...but I told him that "he" should be in charge of fundraising for the swings. We thought about things he could do, and immediately we agreed that he could raise money by having a lemonade stand. During the build weekend, Robbie had a lemonade stand set up, with all proceeds supporting the Where Angels Play Foundation -- and he was quite the salesman! We all laughed because although he was selling for 25 cents a cup, he didn't give change! So, if you gave him "green money", he just gave out the lemonade, said thank you, and then put the money in his box! Bill was so impressed that he told him he was going to take him out on the road! So, we talked to Bill and he loved the idea of having Robbie lead the fundraising effort for the addition of swings at Hannah's playground and he will be signing a contract to make it official. Robbie is already very proud (and protective) of Hannah's playground, but this will allow him to create his own legacy for his sister...and what a gift that will be, not only for him, but for every child that comes to visit and play on the playground.
So, Robbie has held two lemonade stands so far in his effort, the first at the inaugural farmers market at Falls Village, where he not only sold the lemonade but he also told everyone it was "for swings for his sissy Hannah's playground". Our little boy is really starting to come out of his shell, and we couldn't be more proud of the kind, compassionate, and very funny young man he is becoming. He then held a second lemonade stand at our recent Hustle4Hannah 5K race, also a very successful venture. We came home and counted his stack of money and were quite impressed with the funds he had raised all on his own. In mid October, we traveled down to Myrtle Beach to participate in the Where Angels Play FLASH Fundraiser, a wonderful event that brings police and fire departments from all around NJ together to raise funds for this incredible organization. Following dinner the first evening, during the opening ceremonies, our family spoke briefly about Robbie's mission to raise funds for the installation of swings at Hannah's playground and then Robbie presented Bill with a check....for $400! Our little guy received a standing ovation for all of his hard work!
And, the other day, Robbie received a surprise letter in the mail. Just getting his own mail was excitement enough, but even better was what was inside. It was a letter from Pat Colligan, President of the NJPBA, and he wanted to let Robbie know he was sorry he missed his lemonade stands before, but when he has the next one, he wants a whole pitcher of lemonade! And, included with the letter was a check for $1,000. To say we are humbled is an understatement, and Robbie is over the moon that he is more than half way to his goal of fully funding swings for Hannah's playground. This little boy and the love he has for his sister will move mountains, that is for sure! A special thank you to Pat, and to everyone who has contributed to help Robbie in his mission...it means more than you will ever know...and I think the smile on his face says it all!
If you would like to help Robbie in his mission to continue to bring joy, you can make a donation to his online fundraiser below. All proceeds to be directed to the Where Angels Play Foundation to support their mission to build playgrounds and bring joy. Thank you in advance for your support!!! #lovealwayswins #inspiredbyhannah #whereangelsplay
"When you see the light, think of me" -- Hannah
At 13, my beautiful daughter Hannah Duffy was a talented athlete, a loyal friend, and an adoring big sister.
Hannah began having seizures in July of 2012, and when our local hospital couldn't find anything wrong, we came to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
When CHOP oncologist Dr. Jean Belasco told Hannah she had a malignant brain tumor, my girl bravely prepared to fight. She was determined to live her best life with whatever time she had left, and Dr Belasco promised to help her do that.
The care Hannah received at CHOP--medical, spiritual, and emotional--made all the difference in her journey.
Our family is so grateful for your support of CHOP.
Soccer was everything to Hannah. She began chemotherapy, but refused a chemo port so she could keep playing. Three weeks into treatment, amid cheers of "Duffy is a toughie," she scored the winning goal in double overtime.
That was Hannah for you.
After that, Hannah underwent nine months of outpatient chemotherapy and radiation. She demanded spicy food on chemo days. She cuddled her little brother Robbie. She laughed and she made us laugh.
Then her aggressive brain tumor returned with a vengeance, landing her back at CHOP with no further treatment options.
I'll never forget the day CHOP Chaplain Laura Palmer met with us. Hannah was very sick but, as always, she wanted to face her situation head on. She asked, "Will everyone forget me when I die?"
Laura told Hannah she made such a big impact on her family and friends that no one would forget her. "Because," she said, "when you love someone deeply, you live in that love forever."
Hannah asked, "Will people be disappointed? I was supposed to beat cancer."
The chaplain told Hannah, "You have beaten cancer, by not letting it touch your spirit. Every day you inspire others by not letting fear hold you back, by living life on your own terms."
It was the truth. And Hannah felt much better. So did I.
Soon after, Hannah asked to go home. On that day, hundreds of our Tinton Falls, NJ friends and neighbors lined our street to give her a hero's welcome.
Hannah being Hannah, she gave assigments to her survivors. Her friends were to wear pink high heels with a silver H on the soles to her wake. She asked them to embroider her name on their wedding dresses so she could be there in spirit.
She loved sunbeams and said, "When you see the light, think of me."
Hannah lived, with help from hospice, for five more weeks. She died on September 26, 2013, and her memory shines brightly for all of us who loved her.
Some cancers still can't be beaten. But although our story didn't end up the way we wanted, CHOP provided Hannah--and our family--with the best possible care in every way.
Please accept my family's heartfelt thanks for your support of CHOP, and my best wishes for a holiday season filled with love and light.
For the love of Hannah,
Included with my letter is a blue star, intended to be placed on an electric candle to shine 'CHOP blue' during the holiday season. Many of the buildings in the city of Philadelphia will be lit up blue during the holiday season, specifically during December 14-16, as part of the Season of Light campaign, all of which has been inspired by our Hannah. We will be going down to Philadelphia during that time to see the light displays in person....in some small way it will allow us to feel closer to Hannah. I just know she wouldn't miss seeing the city lit up in blue, all inspired by her love and her light. Pretty awesome if you ask me....
Please take a moment and send a child a special note this holiday season from the link below....it doesn't cost a thing, but will surely lift the spirits of a child in the hospital.
And, for this holiday season, if you're thinking about making a donation for a good cause, please consider making a donation directly to CHOP in memory of our Hannah during this "Season of Light".
"Live with No Regrets, Love with Compassion, Be Kind, and Never Ever Give up that Fighting Spirit"
Those Facebook memory updates usually bring up sad moments for me, but not today, this was one of the BEST moments through not only Hannah's journey with cancer, but what a special lifetime moment! She was SO happy to be back on the field with her teammates, and they all played with heart and soul for their dear friend. When Hannah scored that winning goal in double overtime, it was the BEST feeling ever...I can close my eyes and bring myself right back there, when in that moment there was nothing but pure joy...no cancer, no pain, nothing but joy. It really was one of the happiest moments of our lives, and it showed everyone that no matter what life throws at you, don't ever ever give up. So, today I say thank you to facebook for reminding me to remember the joy and the extraordinary impact of one young girl.
I can't believe this was 2yrs ago...one of the BEST days, a day no one will forget. Miss you, my angel girl. I'm sure you're scoring goals up there in heaven too. 💜⚽💜
Wow, lots of great things happened today... Hannah went back to school today for the first time in nearly a month. Not for the whole day, but she was able to enjoy lunch with her friends and the afternoon classes. She was also cleared to play soccer, so she was finally able to play in her first game in the middle school as an 8th grade captain. To say she was excited is an understatement. Today the game was against Wall Twp...they were pretty confident since they had beaten our team earlier in the season. What they didn't bank on was the determination and heart of 18 girls who were thrilled to have their friend and teammate Hannah back on the field with them. The lady Panthers played an amazing game and the game was tied 0-0 at the end. The game went into overtime and then it happened...Hannah scored the winning goal! Omg, everyone went wild and cheered like crazy...of course, me being the emotional basket case that I am, just cried...tears of joy of course. What a storybook ending to an awesome game. I have to say, Hannah scored the goal but EVERY one of those girls played with heart...great job today lady Panthers! Robbie had fun at the game too, though he spent more time running around than watching the game! Thank you Daniele for playing with Robbie...we can't wait to come over tomorrow and play some more! Jeni, we may have a budding romance on our hands! And, a special thank you to everyone who continues to pray for Hannah...it means more to us than you'll ever know. She is a strong girl and proves it to us each and every day. Today just lifted her spirits so much. Wow is all I can say...today was good....real good ...
Missing my girl. It's hard to believe that we're coming up on what would have been her 16th birthday....her sweet 16...and the 2nd birthday celebrated as an angel. Last year we celebrated Hannah's life and legacy with a beautiful balloon release, and we are planning to do the same again this year. My hope is that somehow she's able to see and feel all of the love.
Hannah Rose .... you are missed beyond measure and forever loved.