Diocesan News

TMLA Sophomore Raises $120,000 for Cancer Research in Just 6 Weeks

Julia O’Sullivan (right) had T-shirts made with the Team Sister Strong logo that she and her sister Siobhan (left) wore during a ski trip to Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Pennsylvania. (Photos: Courtesy of Maura O’Sullivan)

‘I Did It For My Sister’

BELLE HARBOR — Sisters Julia and Siobhan O’Sullivan have always been close but they became closer when Siobhan was diagnosed with leukemia in 2019 at age nine.

Siobhan’s courage deeply moved her sister. “She showed me how to handle it,” Julia, 16, recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, my sister has cancer!’ And she was saying, ‘Yeah, what about it? It may bring me down a bit, but I’ll just come back stronger.’ She was brave.”

Fast forward three years. 

Siobhan, 12, who endured chemotherapy, has been declared cancer-free by her doctors and is a seventh-grader at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy in Belle Harbor. Julia, a sophomore at The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates, has been named the 2022 New York City Student of the Year by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for raising $120,000 for the organization.

Julia’s feat is notable, not just for the amount of money, but for the speed with which she raised it — six weeks. She took part in a Society fundraising competition that started on Jan. 13 and finished on March 3. 

The first thing she did was put together a team of family and friends and dubbed it “Team Sister Strong,” in a salute to Siobhan. 

Next, she organized a series of fundraisers that included a party at a Rockaway Park restaurant called the Bungalow Bar, where participants munched on homemade Irish soda bread and bought raffle tickets for the chance to win cash prizes totaling $15,000. The Mary Louis Academy held a duck race and other high schools held “Dress Down Days.”

Team Sister Strong got busy posting flyers in store windows in Belle Harbor, sending out mailings to friends, and posting announcements on Facebook.

Julia also collaborated with a family that was conducting their own fundraiser for a boy with cancer. They offered to have T-shirts made for Team Sister Strong. The team drew attention at Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Pennsylvania when they arrived en masse wearing their T-shirts during Winter Break in February. They sold a lot of the shirts at the resort that week.

Dollar by dollar, Julia raised money. She received help and support from her parents, Jerry and Maura O’Sullivan, and won the admiration of her sister Siobhan. “I did it for my sister,’ Julia explained. “I definitely think we’re closer now than we’ve ever been,” Siobhan said.

Julia’s fundraising prowess impressed the society. She learned she had earned the award when she attended a society dinner. “I had no idea where I stood in the rankings. I knew how much I had raised, but I didn’t know how much money anyone else had raised,” she said.

Julia was one of several students from around the country to earn a student of the year title. “We’re so grateful to the Students of the Year candidates and volunteers who fundraise for LLS. They are truly bringing us closer to a world without blood cancer,” the society said in a statement.

The O’Sullivan Family (that’s Julia, Mom Maura, Siobhan and Dad Jerry) had a great time at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Gala, where Julia received her award.

The society is allowing Julia to select where she wants the money to go. She’s donating it to the Childhood Initiative, a program conducting research into medications for kids with blood cancers. “Right now, they’re given the same medications as adults. That’s hard on them,” she said.

For Maura O’Sullivan, seeing her younger daughter survive leukemia and her older daughter achieve success makes her proud. “When Siobhan was in treatment, we were so worried. And we worried about Julia, too, because we had to focus all of our attention on Siobhan. It did monopolize our lives and we were afraid Julia would feel left out. But she handled it amazingly,” she said.

Ann O’Hagan-Cordes, principal of The Mary Louis Academy, said Julia embodies the spirit of the school where there is an emphasis on serving others. “She could be a poster girl for our school. She embodies our mission,” she said.

Julia, who is on the school volleyball team, hopes to go into sports medicine someday. She enjoys riding bikes, listening to Harry Styles, going to the beach, and hanging out with her friends.

Life has returned to normal for Siobhan, too. She plays soccer, volleyball, and basketball and is a competitive swimmer.

Julia has tips for anyone undertaking a fundraising campaign. “Reach out to as many people as you can and stay on top of them,” she explained. “But the most important thing is to know why you’re raising the money and let people know why it’s important to you. In my case, it was my sister.”