When I first moved to Long Beach, I made the mistake of volunteering to plan my block party—those who have done it will know what I mean—and of all the available dates, I picked the first Saturday in September. When I went door to door collecting signatures, I learned my second mistake. Never schedule anything on Michelle O’Neill Day, that is, if you want anyone from Long Beach to show up. Because honestly, the entire town is on the beach. The West End becomes such a ghost town that tumbleweeds could roll by and no one would be there to notice. So now I plan accordingly, and every year since then I’ve been at Michelle O’Neill Day as a spectator, player, or enthusiastic model for Smiley Wear.
Not many mothers get to experience their whole town coming out each year in honor of their daughter, and I recently had the chance to chat with Carol O’Neill about her daughter Michelle, and the O’Neill Family’s work to keep her loving legacy alive.
Originally from Queens, the O’Neill’s arrived in Long Beach in the 1970’s. They bought and renovated a bungalow on Oregon Street, eventually settling here full-time with their four children.
At 17, while still in high school, Michelle was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She successfully underwent treatment while taking classes at Nassau Community College, and later transferred to SUNY Oneonta, graduating in 1995 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies. The future seemed bright. But that summer Carol began to notice that Michelle was getting forgetful. A doctor confirmed a mother’s worst fear—her daughters’ tumor had returned in 5 different places. This time, the cancer proved impossible to beat, and sadly, Michelle passed away in October of 1996. She was only 24 years old.
Michelle had a sparkle that her siblings and cousins wanted to celebrate, commemorate, and continue—so the following year they decided to memorialize her with a volleyball tournament in the West End.
“Why volleyball?” Carol asks, grins, and then answers her own question, “Because it’s a volleyball town! Michelle never played, but she loved to be active.”
The first tournament was held on Kentucky Beach, right near Chauncey’s. It was 1997 and the infamous bar had just closed, but the owners graciously re-opened the doors for one day so the O’Neill Family could host a raffle and give participants access to a bathroom (what a West End concept!) They put up 11 nets, sold 200 shirts, and made 17K.
But Carol says, “we always had something more permanent in mind.” So they used the money raised in that first year to establish the Michelle O’Neill Foundation. “It was just the perfect combination of family, a core group of Michelle’s girlfriends, and this town that gave us the magic formula to get it off the ground.”
Each year it grew and grew, and eventually became so big that it had to be moved closer to the middle of town to accommodate the hundreds (now thousands) of people who participate. The tournament now centers around Laurelton Beach.
“The event has such meaning for people,” Carol shares happily. “Many come up to me and say, ‘This is absolutely my favorite day of the year.’ Everyone is there to have fun, but underneath it all, it helps other people.”
The Foundation donates the money they raise to help children with cancer, partnering with organizations like The Make-A-Wish Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and Eagle Mount, a nonprofit organization in Bozeman, MT that provides therapeutic, recreational programs for people with disabilities and children with cancer.
Eagle Mount is especially close to Carol’s heart because she and her daughter were given the opportunity to spend an amazing week under “big sky country.” While Michelle was receiving cancer treatment at Sloan, one of the nurses told them there was a little boy who was too sick to travel and asked if she wanted to take his place. With only three days notice, Carol and Michelle packed, had their nails painted bright orange and hot pink, boarded a plane, and flew out to Montana. It was their first time out west.
“The whole town opened up their doors to us,” Carol remembers fondly. They hiked Yellowstone National Park, went white water rafting, drank cowboy coffee, and slept under the stars. It was a chance for both of them to experience “normalcy” for a week.
Funded entirely though private dollars, Eagle Mount never turns anyone away because they can’t pay, and The Michelle O’Neill Foundation sponsors kids to travel to the camp so they can enjoy a world of adventure and take a break from their worries.
If you’ve lived in Long Beach for any length of time, you’re no doubt familiar with the signature logo of the foundation—the Smiley. It was born when Carol’s daughter, Caryl Ann, came home from a craft fair with a smiley-face tattoo. It was so representative of Michelle’s beautiful smile and laughter-filled personality that the family decided to adopt and adapt it. Every year they choose a theme and have graphic artist, George Matthaei, custom design it. One year, Carol suggested a cowboy hat to represent the “West” End. This year, the yellow smile is sporting headphones because Michelle loved music.
The production and distribution of Smiley Wear is a gargantuan effort, that couldn’t be accomplished without the help of 25 core volunteers who help the O’Neill Family prepare for the big day. Seaside Celebrations takes delivery of the massive clothing order, where it is sorted and packed, before being transported to the gym at Long Beach Catholic School. On the Thursday night before the event, pre-registered players are encouraged to pick up their participation bags in advance, and the Smiley Wear goes on display. Pre-purchase is highly recommended, as this merchandise is hot and goes fast! There’s no online store, so once they run out of an item—it’s gone. Better luck next year.
The months leading up to the tournament are hard work and can be stressful for Carol, but when the day finally arrives it’s nothing but fun for her. “It’s a well-oiled machine at this point. When I open my eyes, I’m just so relieved when there’s no rain. Living here, in front of the ocean… the energy of the day is spiritual. I really feel Michelle’s presence that day.”
Last year they had 57 nets, 360 teams, printed 3,500 shirts—just for the volleyball participants alone— and raised $200,000. Who knows what numbers they’ll reach this year! Link to their Facebook page to scroll through images from prior years.
As they get ready to celebrate their 21st year, Carol is thankful that a whole new generation of O’Neill’s— including 4 grandchildren—are eager to grow the Foundation. “The beat will go on,” she says, “I have such a positive feeling that it’s going to continue.”
And, as if the name Michelle O’Neill wasn’t already the most well-known name in Long Beach, Michelle also has a street named after her! In 2016, Carol’s niece Deirdre petitioned the city to put up an honorary sign on the corner of Oregon Street and Oceanview Avenue that says, Michelle O’Neill Way. “Every day I see her name up there it makes me smile. Once I was out on my deck and I heard a biker shout out to someone, ‘Meet me by the Michelle O’Neill sign!’”
When Carol isn’t living and breathing volleyball, or working on Foundation matters, she paints beautiful watercolor canvases. She calls herself a serious beginner, but I think we define the word “beginner” a bit differently!
This year, the Michelle O’Neill Tournament will take place on Saturday, September 9th. The tournament begins at 9 A.M. For more information about participating or donating money to this great cause, visit the website at www.monfoundation.org.
Bump, set, spike! See you at Michelle O’Neill Day!
Happy Labor Day!