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Q&A: Carol O'Neill of the Michelle O'Neil Foundation

East Coast's largest volleyball tournament is set for Sept. 10 in Long Beach.

The annual Michelle O'Neill Volleyball Tournament is a fundraiser held in Long Beach for children with cancer and their families. Each September, the event typically hosts more than 1,700 volleyball enthusiasts from across the tri-state area, and raises as much as $100,000 for many charities that included Make a Wish Foundation, Big Sky Camp in Montana and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

This year, the tournament will be held on Sept. 10 at Grand Boulevard and New York Avenue beaches. The opening ceremony is at 9 a.m. and competitive trophies are awarded at sunset.

Patch sat down with Carol O'Neill this week to talk to her about her daughter, Michelle, the Michelle O’Neill Foundation that she established with her family and the annual fundraiser tournament.

Patch: Tell us about your daughter Michelle’s life and what is most important to remember about her?  

Carol O'Neill: Michelle was a beautiful, courageous and very funny young woman who loved her family and friends and wanted to help others. She in turn was loved by so many in and outside our community. She brought an incredible amount of joy to our family and to those who knew her, and continues to touch many others through her foundation. Her presence is sorely missed!

How did you get the idea to hold a volleyball tournament to raise money for cancer-related charities?

Very simply, Michelle suffered from brain cancer, having been diagnosed while she was a senior in high school. She was treated in the Pediatric Clinic at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where we saw many children suffering and trying to recover from cancer.

After she lost her battle in October 1996 at age 24, her sisters, brother, cousins and friends were on the beach trying to think of a way to remember Michelle, help us through our grief and help others. Living in Long Beach, a volleyball tournament in her memory to benefit children with cancer was natural solution and before her first year anniversary, the first annual Michelle O'Neill volleyball tournament took place in September 1997 on Kentucky beach in front of Chauncey's.

And although we've moved further west to New York Avenue and Grand Boulevard, it has worked successfully for 15 years. For Michelle's family and friends, it is almost tangible as it represents her sunny fun-loving personality — thus, the reason for our smiley face logo. For the community, it is a way of getting together at the end of each summer, enjoying each other and celebrating life while helping others.

How has the Michelle O’Neill Foundation and the annual fundraiser helped find for a cure for cancer, or helped those who are stricken with the disease?

The Michelle O'Neill Foundation cannot cure cancer. I wish we could, but what we can do is help families of children who are being treated for this catastrophic disease by relieving the financial burdens associated with caring for a child with cancer. 

We are able to give them hope and let them know there are people who do care. There were many people who reached out to us when Michelle was undergoing her treatment, and we know firsthand how comforting and necessary that is. 

We also support many oncology organizations that helped us, such as Make-A-Wish, Ronald McDonald House, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Eagle Mount's Big Sky Kids Camp and many others.

Describe the amount of work that goes into organizing this event each year?

Now is a perfect time to ask me that question, as we are only days away from what is known as the largest single event volleyball tournament on the East Coast, and the "work" is very fresh in our minds! 

Although we are involved year-round with helping the families who need our help, we usually actively begin in January to prepare for the charity event. We need to get our sponsors on board, permits in order, solicit our donors for corporate sponsorships, raffle benefactors, volunteers and public relations. Meetings with our core of committee members (Michelle's friends & family) to help us decide on the logistics of the event. 

The work increases as the event approaches, and as we speak, we have taken registrations for over 250 teams, pools are being made and court assignments given. All the shirts, wristbands and garbage bags for our pre-registered teams will be packaged and offered for pick-up on Sept. 8 at LBCRS gym, which means a lot of hands packing and muscle transporting them to the gym, and ultimately to the beach, along with all the raffle prizes, supplies for the Kids' Tent and merchandise for sale. 

Fifty nets will be in place and corporate and family banners hung on the boardwalk in front of the nets. Arrangements for music, DJ, food and beverage, display of over 200 American flags, bagpipes, electricity, staging, tents, security, etc. Coordination with the City of Long Beach, commissioner of Recreation, police, sanitation and public relations departments all need to be in place. And last, but certainly not least, lots of prayers for good weather and safety are offered.

What are your long-term goals with the foundation and fundraiser?

The very same as our short-term goals: to help children with cancer, to honor Michelle's life and to offer families hope and inspiration for as long and as well as we can.

LMB September 09, 2011 at 06:07 PM
The one day a year you can drink on the beach.....
Misty September 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM
It's so wonderful that her family keeps her memory alive. God Bless all of them!!!
margaret September 10, 2011 at 11:40 AM
Carol O'Neil, her family, and friends do an amazing and memorable job each year of honoring Michelle and uniting the commuity for a worthy cause. It is heartwarming to see many of the children helped by the foundation returning to the event to thank Carol and her committee. The Michelle O'Neil Volleyball Tournament is my favorite event on the beach!

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