Making a Difference: Cameron Gallagher continues to touch lives after death
Nine months have passed since David and Grace Gallagher lost their 16-year-old daughter, Cameron, after she collapsed at the finish line of the Anthem Shamrock Half Marathon in Virginia Beach.
They’re coming to grips with the sudden loss of a bright, bubbly girl who also suffered from depression so severe that they sometimes had to pull her from school and even hospitalize her.
And each day, the Gallaghers find out just how many thousands of lives their daughter touched, in ways big and small, during her 16 years.
“The more we tell her story and impact people through her legacy, the longer she is on earth,” David said.
Andrew Gallagher, Cameron’s older brother, shared her story this spring at his Benedictine College Preparatory graduation.
“I think now that this half-marathon symbolized, to her, beating her depression,” Andrew said. “And as she trained, she — began to come out of her dark hours. She would sit in her room for hours and write down these artfully written positive and motivational quotes and hang them up so she could look at them when she was feeling sad.”
David Gallagher said he has found hundreds of those notes and quotes.
“She wrote them on loose leaf paper, in notebooks, on sticky notes,” David said. “I’m still finding them all over the house.”
A few weeks ago, a guidance counselor at Douglas S. Freeman High School, where Cameron had been a student, asked to meet with Grace. A student recently had come to see the counselor and had asked for help dealing with recurring depression.
It wasn’t a student who had known Cameron well. But Cameron’s story, a story of good days and bad days and sunshine and dark clouds, prompted this teenager to seek help.
Cameron’s story became national news within days of her death. Bliley’s Funeral Home told the family it never had seen so many people come to a visitation. Guests waited for hours in a line that stretched out the door and into a rainy night. St. Bridget Catholic Church said the funeral was the largest service in the church’s history.
“That’s when we began to see something was different about this story,” David said. “We began getting letters from all over the country from people wanting to be involved. The community called us into action.”
Cameron, like many suburban 16-year-olds, wanted a car last year. Andrew had worked at age 16 until he saved $2,000; his parents matched that to fund the car.
But Cameron’s depression meant she wasn’t consistent about showing up to a job. So her father made her a deal.
“I said I’d buy a car if she set a challenging but achievable goal and accomplished it,” David said. “That’s what led her to decide to run a half marathon.”
When the family went into Cameron’s room a few days after she died, they found the nearly complete plans for a race that Cameron had named the Speak Up 5K.
Among the paperwork, they found invitations to speakers, pitches to potential sponsors, and notes for a speech Cameron wanted to give at the event.
She had floated the idea with her parents a few days before the half marathon, but they had no idea she nearly was done planning the race.
Her parents had told her the idea was great but that she should focus on passing sophomore English.
After her death, the family found themselves finishing Cameron’s plans.
“Cameron challenged a community, and the community lifted us up by saying, ‘We are here, and we are going to follow through on her dream,’ ” Grace said.
The race marked the first phase of work for the newly formed Cameron K. Gallagher Memorial Foundation. The Gallaghers have hired an executive director, asked community members to join the board, and started to develop educational discussions that can be used in local schools.
“Awareness is so huge,” Grace said. “Yes we want to raise and give money to groups, but we really want awareness. We want people to feel OK speaking up so there’s no stigma. We are in a movement to change the way people think about this issue.”
The Gallaghers were assisted by Abby Donelson, Cameron’s closest friend and her running buddy at the Shamrock race.
Donelson said she was “blown away” by the public’s response to the Speak Up 5K. An estimated 10,000 people attended a May kickoff party, and more than 3,500 came to the Carillon on Sept. 6 to run the race.
“I never thought it’d get this big,” Donelson said. “People really relate to the cause and want depression to be considered an illness, not something weird that isn’t talked about.”
Donelson and the Gallaghers already have scheduled Richmond’s second Speak Up 5K for next September. They also will hold a race in San Diego and hope to expand the Speak Up 5K into a series of races held each year in multiple cities.
The Gallaghers initially thought about having five or six Speak Up races around the country in 2015 before deciding to focus on the Richmond and San Diego projects. They want to make sure the outpouring of support for the Richmond race is channeled and put to work.
In the next few months, Donelson and other friends of Cameron will be out running during cold winter days.
They are returning to Virginia Beach as part of Team Speak Up, a group of runners who have committed to raising or donating at least $131 — a nod to the 13.1 miles Cameron ran last year — to Cameron’s foundation.
This year, Donelson will run the full marathon, 26.2 miles.
“I’m really nervous, and it will be a really emotional day,” she said. “But I think it will be really healing.”
David and Grace said the Christmas season has been a challenging one. They have spent the past nine months building the foundation, organizing races and raising their four remaining children: Andrew, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Virginia; 14-year-old Reilly; 9-year-old Sydney; and 5-year-old Mitchell.
“We’re starting to realize our family is not whole,” Grace said. “I can’t wrap my head around the idea that I won’t see her again. Our kids say they catch themselves wondering where she is.”
Both David and Grace, who already enjoyed exercising, have taken that to the next level. David completed an Ironman triathlon, and Grace finished a half Ironman.
“It’s very Cameron to not allow us to hide,” Grace said. “We’ve been able to take time as a family, but we are better able to feel good when we are keeping her voice alive.”
The pair said they think people were inspired first by the tragedy of Cameron’s death but now also are inspired by the family’s goal to help Cameron change the world.
“You will do anything for your child. Why would I stop just because she isn’t here?” Grace said.
“We are not going to stop giving to Cameron. That would be selfish.”
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