Grace and David Gallagher: Keeping their daughter's memory alive

http://www.richmond.com/discover-richmond/article_ef32d475-6580-5a0d-9173-0e0f0324c635.html

She completed her first half-marathon deep in a swarm of runners, more than 5,000 places behind the winner.

And as her mom and dad rushed in celebration to the side of their 16-year-old daughter at the finish line, a powerful mission took shape: to tell the world about the young lady who, seconds later, lay unconscious in their arms.

Cameron K. Gallagher died that day from an undiagnosed heart condition. The tragedy left the Douglas S. Freeman High School sophomore mourned by thousands but also would serve to draw attention to an even more difficult and pervasive enemy: depression.

"We try not to see this as the place we lost Cameron," father David Gallagher would say a year later, referring to the finish line where his daughter collapsed March 16, 2014, at the end of the Shamrock half-marathon in Virginia Beach.

Rather, he said, "this is the birthplace of where Cameron made her legacy." Cameron's parents, both veteran runners, and her grandfather ran the race in her honor this past March.  

For almost two years now, David and Grace Gallagher have been making good on a promise to tell their daughter's story, raising tens of thousands of dollars through benefit runs bringing attention to depression and their daughter's fight for clarity and purpose in life. The Virginia Treatment Center for Children at VCU Medical Center received $50,000, and thousands of dollars have gone to other organizations.

"What makes their story so powerful is how genuine they are," said Margaret Nimmo Crowe, executive director of Voices for Virginia's Children, which honored the couple this fall. "They are able to connect with people and talk about the struggles families have in common."

In the days after Cameron's death, fighting to come to grips with their loss, the Gallaghers discovered in their daughter's room an outline of a plan to create the SpeakUp5K run. The run would draw attention to childhood depression and, through its name, broadcast the urgent need to speak up about the condition, to not remain silent.

SpeakUp5K runs have drawn thousands of participants in the Richmond area for two years but also have been held or are planned across the country to benefit the Cameron K. Gallagher Memorial Foundation, which supports depression awareness and research.

David and Grace also have become deeply involved in mental health issues, addressing audiences with their story. This fall, the couple appeared together before nearly 100 people at First Presbyterian Church on Cary Street.

At times choking back tears at each other's comments and reflections, the Gallaghers presented a compassionate story of their effort to come to grips with a daughter who, in her early teens, had been overwhelmed by depression. The condition threatened to splinter the family until David realized how aware Cameron was of the impact she was having on her four siblings and parents. 

"She was asking to make it go away because she was so acutely aware of what it had done to everyone else," David said of a pivotal moment when his daughter spoke of the burden of her illness.

"We're a mom and dad," Grace told the audience. "We don't have all the answers, but we know what it feels like to feel very lost, very overwhelmed and very alone." She spoke of a daughter whose smile "lit up a room but was dimmed by a great sadness." She was like a crystal, Grace said - with dark and bright sides, sharp edges and glass-smooth surfaces.

Incredibly, no one was more conscious of her condition than Cameron, and after the teen's death, along with the plans for the SpeakUp race, the Gallaghers found a moving, introspective description of her illness written by their daughter.

"She was bound and determined to turn her darkness into something bright and beautiful," Grace said, recalling her daughter's plan to run the half-marathon and then begin the SpeakUp project to draw attention to mental illness. "She wants you to run her race and spread kindness. And don't be afraid to speak up.

"She wants you to take her message and keep her voice alive," she told the audience at First Presbyterian.

"So, we're now in a society of parents that have lost a child," David told the gathering. "And that's not a club that anyone wants to be in. Many would say it's your worst nightmare."

But he stressed that the family's journey has become a positive one, and the 5Ks have given their daughter a legacy. 

"We're proud of that," he said, adding that the rewards come in the thanks from young runners with problems. What he celebrates most are the young people who come up after a race and say: "You gave me hope for another day. You gave me a reason, you gave me purpose, you gave me light, you spoke for me," David said. "It's then that Cameron's living on, and Cameron's greater than she ever was."

At the 12-mile mark on March 16, 2014, Cameron and running buddy Abby Donelson began to wilt. Cameron turned to her friend, urging the duo on: "Let's finish this," she said.

They did. And the phrase, which now covers thousands of SpeakUp5K T-shirts, is the motto of the foundation that carries her name - and her legacy. 

Cameron's funeral attracted the largest outpouring of mourners in the history of St. Bridget Catholic Church. At her burial site in Richmond, an epitaph is etched on a polished granite tombstone:

I will not cause pain without allowing something new to be born. Isaiah 66:9

GRACE GALLAGHER

Position: executive director, Cameron K. Gallagher Memorial Foundation

Born/hometown: Feb. 26, 1974; Richmond

College: Longwood University, Radford University

Family: husband David; children Andrew, Cameron, Reilly, Sydney and Mitchell

IN HER WORDS

Role model

Mother Teresa, because of her capacity to see beauty in what the rest of the world would view as horrific. Her example to love unconditionally amazed and still amazes me.

Alternate profession or course of study

I have always been interested in the nursing field, especially pediatrics. I love kids so much and I would love to be a part of making them feel better. I also think teaching would be exciting - you never know what will come out of their mouths!

A small moment in life with a big impact

I have been fortunate to have so many great small moments in my life. My lens I see them through before and after March 16, 2014, is very interesting. I feel like every small moment now has a lasting impact on me. The small moment when your 20-year-old still says “I love you, too, Mama” when he hangs up the phone with you. The small moment when your 15-year-old says, “Mom, I am a peacock - you gotta let me fly!” And you giggle because peacocks don’t really fly. That moment when your 9-year-old tells your husband he really needs a haircut. The moment when your 6-year-old smiles with so much excitement and whispers to his friend sitting next to him “That’s my mom” - because you were the surprise mystery reader that day at school. That moment when you look at your husband with a tear slowly going down his cheek and you fall in love with him all over again. Only the two of you share this pain, and that lone tear is filled with so much love that you feel like you can see beauty dripping from it. You see, every moment is impactful because everything matters.

Favorite movie

“Interstellar.” It really makes you think on a whole different level, and the cinematography is amazing.

Something that might surprise others

I have had quite the variety of hair color over the years.

Something you’d like to do

Go to Africa.

Proudest accomplishment

Giving birth to the five most awesome and amazing people.

Favorite thing about Richmond region

I love Brown's Island and Belle Isle. So cool to look out and see this powerful river and then turn back around and see a great city.

DAVID ANDREW GALLAGHER

Position: CEO, Dominion Payroll Services

Born/hometown: Sept. 20, 1973; Richmond

College: Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia Tech, VCU

Family: wife Grace; children Andrew, Cameron, Reilly, Sydney and Mitchell

IN HIS WORDS

Role model

Steve Jobs. Many people share my passion for this man, but my reasons for making him my role model are unique. It’s not about his vision as much as his will to create beyond consensus, to make change. He didn’t listen to his market - he decided to change his market without permission, knowing the people would follow. I love that leadership: Create and they will come. Be forceful in your vision and they will support. Don’t ask for permission: Go. Let them tell you no - use that as your reason to do it anyway.

Alternate profession or course of study

Rock star - I would have loved to have played in a band and traveled the country. In contrast, I believe I would have enjoyed teaching preschool. I love kids at that age; they’re fun and full of promise. Everything is positive when you're 3 or 4 years old.

A small moment in life with a big impact

Losing Cameron had an impact on me that instantaneously changed me as a man. Beyond the immediate devastation and pain, I found that my own thoughts and beliefs where different. Things that annoyed me became enjoyable, things that frustrated me became silly, and I was given a new view on humanity. I always say that life’s shame is that it often takes tragedy to force positive change in perspective. But through my loss, I was given the most remarkable gift: the gift of perspective. And the gift of a supporting community and friends. It is such an honor to feel the love and support of your community and become a spokesperson for that community. If I had not lost Cameron, I would not have been given these remarkable gifts. While I miss her terribly, I’m so grateful to her for her lasting significant impact on my life. I won’t let her sacrifice be lost.

Favorite book

Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged": “I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest value and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle.” I believe the concepts discussed in this book should be required reading to all high-schoolers.

Something that might surprise others

I cry at almost every movie, and I’m terrified of heights. I also can’t stand it when light bulbs go out. I have been vegan for two years.

Something you’d like to do

Race the Challenge Roth (triathlon) in Germany (July 2016), fly an airplane, and sing the national anthem at a national event.

Proudest accomplishment

I am simply most proud of my family. They are remarkable people and fill me with an inspiration to lead change in this world. I’m surrounded by a family that sees conflict and pain as a source of purpose and mission. They never let pain become an anchor; they let it become their fuel. They laugh all day and see their world as a place of humorous opportunity.

Favorite thing about Richmond region

The people and the place. The community is warm and engaged, willing to have an impact. People are fired up about innovation and change yet proud of their existing world. Richmond, physically, is gorgeous - four seasons, mountains, beaches ... and a river. It’s a perfect environment to live in.

lauren west