The Dunleavys of Dublin and Clare are a family who, in the face of tragedy and adversity, have dedicated their lives to inspiring and helping others. After losing a child to cancer they have raised an approximate two million dollars for cancer research. Another one of their sons with Down Syndrome has since become a motivational speaker who has spoken to thousands, including the Boston Bruins as their honorary coach.
Gerry Dunleavy and his wife Toni immigrated to America from Co. Clare and Dublin respectively, and met in Massachusetts in 1988. “Even though we grew up 200 miles apart, it turns out we actually were baptized in the same church,” Gerry told IrishCentral in an interview. “Also, her grandfather was my mother's doctor.”
They are both self-starters; they left steady jobs in Ireland, and today Gerry runs a successful construction company, and Toni runs a Montessori school. They’ve had five children.
Their first son, John, 23, was born with Down Syndrome, and their second son Michael developed an inoperable brain tumor at eight years old, and passed away shortly thereafter.
Eerily enough there has been an unfortunate trend in his family, which is the death of the second son: “In the last three generations of Dunleavys, the second born son has died. My grandparents lost my uncle Martin at eight years old, my parents lost my brother John at eight months old, we lost my son Michael at 8 years old,” he said.
Gerry said the family has so far raised two million dollars for cancer research, and there is a Michael Dunleavy Memorial Pediatric Brain Tumor Fund set up at Mass General Hospital for Children, where Michael passed away. The family's proceeds have also gone toward the reformulating of a chemotherapy drug that can increase longevity in the lives of terminally ill children.
“Believe me, when you're signing a Do Not Resuscitate form for your child, you'll take two extra minutes with him, let alone two weeks,” he said.
First born son John, who has Down Syndrome, has a natural talent for motivating others and has become an inspirational speaker by profession. He began working in operations for the Boston Bruins hockey team, and when the coaches took note of his talent, they hired him as honorary coach to give pep talks to the Bruins before games.
“When he was a baby, some people said we should teach him sign language, and we said no, because if we do, he'd be in his own bubble and unable to speak to the masses,” Gerry said, almost having intuited his son’s future talent for public speaking.
“We worked tremendously making sure he could read, write and have life skills. Simple things: making sure he knows how to count change. Special needs children, given the time, and time spent with them, can achieve.”
Aside from working for the Bruins, John helps manage a high school football team and is an advocate for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, for which he gives motivational speeches to hundreds of people with Down Syndrome and their families. He is very involved in sports; he’s won special needs swimming and basketball championships and has a black belt in karate. A celebrity of sorts, he has also carried the Irish flag into boxing rings for professional Irish boxers.
The Dunleavys began their fundraising efforts when John was a child, raising money for Down Syndrome awareness societies and for the building of community centers in County Clare through Irish dance events.
John was very close to Michael before he passed away, and Michael was a tremendous help in teaching his older brother everyday skills. Michael was vibrant and courageous; after his diagnosis in 2002, the eight-year-old held a lemonade stand sale and said the money was for cancer research, and brain tumors specifically. He raised 28 dollars.
Inspired by their son’s selfless act, the Dunleavys continued his wish. They began with a 5k charity walk/road race in Winchester, MA, giving proceeds to Massachusetts General Hospital for Children as well as Camp Sunshine in Maine, a camp that provides refuge or vacation to sick or terminally ill children and their families.
Toni Dunleavy’s siblings in Ireland started the same 5k walk in Doolin, Co. Clare and have been hosting it for thirteen years now. Their proceeds go to Crumlin Hospital for children in Dublin under the umbrella of the Michael Dunleavy Foundation.
One of the main Dunleavy fundraisers in America today is their “white collar boxing” tournament. “If Michael was alive today, he would be 20 years old, and all his peers have already gone to college,” Gerry said.
Their 5k was geared toward children, and he wants their fundraising efforts to become broader and cater to ages that Michael would have been.
White collar boxing is geared toward young professionals; their main demographic is students, researchers, lawyers and scientists from Boston College, MIT and Harvard. In the first year 700 people came, and in the second year 1,000 came. This year they have 26 boxers who’ve signed up.
“We've been raising money for cancer for 12 years. We always have some gig going on, the whole family is in the middle of it; we don't realize that we're doing as much as we are,” Gerry said.
“But we stand back and look and say, gee, we have raised a couple million dollars and continue to do so. We get letters from children who visit camp sunshine for a week, and they bring a tear to your eye.”
In addition to the boxing tournaments they also host Irish cruises and numerous traditional Irish music dances and concerts around the northeast. They also receive many public donations.
This is why Gerry’s main message is that every dollar matters, “whether it's a little kid having a lemonade stand and collecting 28 dollars, or a corporate sponsor giving thousands.”
“A lot of times the researchers are on a shoestring budget, and a couple of thousand dollars can keep the lights on long enough for them to have a discovery. It's only when they get a big discovery that the National Institutes of Health kicks in and gives them funding.”
As for the three other Dunleavy children, Laura, Lucy and Brian - they are all involved in the Michael Dunleavy Foundation, and in volunteering and coaching Special Olympics. Gerry has instilled in them his passion for working hard to achieve goals, and they love giving back.
“We've turned Michael’s passing into a positive thing. His memory lives on and he's never forgotten. He would be very proud today to learn that his foundation has raised two million dollars.
“Even if it's not cured; if we can make it chronic, I'll take it. It all comes down to proper funding, and we have a shot at beating it.”
Click here for more information about the Michael Dunleavy Foundation.