Ten-year old Kaelyn McCandless was flashing an ear-to-ear smile Monday night as she sat between the Lindenhurst and Connetquot girls volleyball teams.
Her sisters, Shay and Riley, play for Lindenhurst. But on that night, everyone on the court and everyone in the stands was rooting for Kaelyn and her fight against cancer.
“The support for our family has been extremely overwhelming,” said the girls’ mom, Lynne McCandless, who sat atop the bleachers and cheered for the visiting Bulldogs. “It’s really the only word we can come up with.”
McCandless was talking about more than this particular game. “Play for KK” fundraisers have swept the Long Island volleyball landscape, with teams working together to raise money for the William Rall Elementary School fifth grader. The Eastport-South Manor boys team, the Patchogue-Medford and Smithtown West girls teams, and college teams, including Adelphi, Hofstra, Iona, Molloy and Queens College, have also hosted events.
On Monday, Kaelyn even took part by rotating into the match and volleying back and forth with the much more experienced high school players.
“It didn’t count,” said her father, Tom McCandless, “but they let her play with them for real. It was just beautiful.”
Everywhere you looked, people were wearing “Kaelyn Strong” tees. Donated by Port Jeff Sports, each represented a $20 donation to the cause. The entire event raised $2,500, including $5 a pop from fans who entered a serving contest held between the second and third sets.
Every donation or act of kindness — no matter how small — is met with a personal message from the McCandless family.
“It’s one of those things where words could never say enough,” Shay McCandless, a senior, said. “We try our hardest; we write letters to anyone who’s ever done anything. Each one of us signs the cards individually to say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
People have donated baskets and made contributions online via GoFundMe.com, among other things. There are fundraisers planned for Saturday, Oct. 27 — a motorcycle ride that begins and ends at Suffolk County Harley Davidson in Oakdale and a Halloween dinner dance at the West Islip Fire Department sponsored by A Mother’s Kiss.
“We would do the same for somebody else if the roles were reversed,” Lynne McCandless said.
Throughout this, Kaelyn has been a tower of strength for the family.
“There are days that I break down in front of her, and she’s just like, ‘Stop crying,’ ” Tom McCandless said.
The dad is a teacher, junior varsity girls basketball coach and varsity boys lacrosse coach in the Lindenhurst school district, and each of the seven McCandless children — Cabel, 20; Hara, 19; Shay, 17; Finn, 16; Riley, 14; Delaney, 11; Kaelyn, 10 — have gone to school in Lindenhurst.
“I’ve had them all since kindergarten,” Lindenhurst coach Kellie Block said. “They’re the type of family that’s in your community, and they give back.”
Block wanted to return their generosity. Her team has worked tirelessly to ensure that Shay and Riley have a safe haven to escape what can be an emotional situation at home.
“I feel like it’s a whole town effort,” said Lindenhurst senior Emily Allen. “A lot of people came that aren’t even involved in volleyball. They’re such a special family. Every single one of them has such a good heart.”
The volleyball community’s ability to rally around one of its own has come as no surprise to those involved with “Play for KK.” Athletes around Long Island, some with direct ties — or no ties at all — to the McCandless family, have stepped up to make a difference.
“We couldn’t not do anything about it,” said Connetquot’s Kiarra Roth. “This situation, coach (Justin Hertz) always says, this means way more than any volleyball game.”
With one common goal, individual teams and mascots were put aside to “Play for KK.”