Patty O’Neill, Executive Director
We spoke with Patty O’Neill who has been a volunteer since 1993, past president for 5 years as well as other board positions and became Executive Director in 2003 and still continues in that role.
Rosemarie Turek and Mary DeSane founded A Time for Me in 1993. What prompted them to start the organization?
Through her work with women with terminal illness, particularly cancer patients, Rosemarie repeatedly met women that put themselves last no matter how sick they got. She also knew that people who are ill and had support networks had better outcomes. Rosemarie, Mary DeSane, Joan Olson (who husband was on the hospice board at JSMC and who was also involved with hospice at that time), and another friend were away at a spa for a girls weekend. It was there that they began brainstorming about starting an organization to give women some time for themselves. Approximately a year later with the help of local business the first fundraiser was held for A Time for ME (perfectly named!). In 1993, six 6 women were able to receive the gift of an A Time for ME weekend.
What made you want to be a volunteer for the organization?
At the time I was involved with several other charitable organizations but was looking for something more meaningful to do. I had met Rosemarie Turek through my work and she told me about A Time for ME. She invited me to attend a fundraiser a few weeks later, and she was not someone you could want to say no to, no matter what. She was so passionate about this program and her energy was infectious. After that event we met several times. She easily convinced me to come on board. I had my own personal scare with cancer when I was in my early thirties. I felt fortunate not to have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation. I wanted to give back. A Time for ME was just the right fit for me and with Rosemarie’s encouragement, I immediately took charge of the next fundraiser. It was exactly what my business mind, combined with my creative side and high energy level (I am the consummate party planner) needed. The rest is history. The time has gone by very quickly.
You’ve been a volunteer for over 20 years, you must have met some amazing women and witnessed some incredible events. Can you share a few with our readers?
Approximately 16 years ago, I attended my first A Time for ME retreat as a volunteer. We were a group of approximately 16 at a small spa in the Poconos. The spa had hired a dance teacher for an African Dance Class on Saturday night. By the time Friday night came, this group of strangers had become good friends, and in looking over the activities schedules “as a group” they all decided to take this class together and I was pulled along for the ride. It was hysterical trying to make the moves like the teacher, a feat most of us could not master. Halfway through the class one of our recipients pulled her wig off and threw it in the air. Her action led the rest of us to break out in laughter and many of the others followed suit. And they left them off for the rest of the weekend.
I remember thinking at that time that these ladies are truly breathing now. It was very profound for me to witness how the layers of stress just peeled away from them as each hour passed during an A Time for ME weekend.
On one retreat a younger single woman was to attend the weekend. She never made it to the bus on time, but called us to say she did not have a ride to our Brielle office and her babysitter could not make it on time. One of our volunteers contacted her and after she had worked that day as a school teacher, she drove to this woman’s home to transport her to the spa. On that particular weekend there were several older ladies who were recipients who had heard the story of this young girl who had missed the bus. When she arrived on Friday night she received such a welcoming from the rest of the group who were already fast friends. Over the course of the rest of the weekend this lady shared with the others her story of living with a drug dealing boyfriend. She in turn had taught the others the latest dance moves. The last thing she told me was that she was leaving her boyfriend at the end of the weekend.
A few years ago we traveled with a lady who had end stage disease and could only get around with a wheelchair. Prior to taking her we were concerned about her limitations and whether the A Time for ME volunteers, and the resort and spa could handle all her special needs adequately enough. After one of our volunteers had several discussions with both her and her daughter, we brought her along to the retreat. Despite her obstacles, Christine turned out to be such a positive addition to the group, and at one point she was racing others in the hallways – she on her wheelchair, the others on foot, laughing hysterically all the way. Sadly, she lost the fight, but she taught many of us how to truly live life.
Her spirit reminds me, like so many of these women I’ve come in contact with through the years of the saying, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take my breath away”.
On one retreat there was a nurse who attended with a friend who also had cancer. She was someone who I noticed was not connecting with the group, despite her friend’s involvement with the others. During a Sunday group meeting she was still sitting off by herself. One of the ladies who was about 80 years old spoke about having a specific type of breast cancer when she was in her thirties. She spoke about the radical surgeries and treatments that she underwent at that time and how far we have come with new medical technology and treatment. She stated that she have lived 50 years since her first diagnosis and now had a different type of cancer. The nurse attendee then stood up and with tears in her eyes she told us her story. “I am an oncology nurse and I am terrified because I have not been able to find any data on anyone who has lived more than 5 years with my type of cancer. I was diagnosed almost three years ago. I have gone back to work and I spend most of my free time looking for statistics. While at work I cannot help checking charts…” She then told the other lady, “You are the statistic that I had been looking for.” She then told us that she did not want to come on the weekend but her friend insisted that she attend. She said that she was thrilled that she came along as she could now look forward to a long life of being cancer free. The change in her overall appearance was quite profound.
Several years ago, we met a mother and daughter who were going to be attending an A Time for Me weekend. During our mandatory orientation meeting they sat off to themselves on the edge of a couch. The daughter, in her twenties, was clinging to her mother. She wore a long black wig that looked like it was just was plopped on head and was covering most of her face. We were not sure it they would attend the weekend but they did. On the way up to the spa they kept off to themselves, but by Friday night this young lady began her transformation. On Saturday she no longer wanted to dine at her mother’s table choosing others who she could share experiences with. Her mother was happy to see her independence. On Sunday just prior to getting back on the bus to go home, she pulled off her wig and threw it in the trash. It was like seeing a tight blossom opening up to a beautiful flower. On the ride home, both mother and daughter were so happy and relaxed, and were laughing along with the rest of the group.
We are so impressed with our recipients. They tend to have such the vast medical knowledge about cancer, and have such generosity in sharing that knowledge with others attending the retreats. All of us at A Time for ME have witnessed this time and time again. Talk about empowerment. Knowledge = power.