Project Main Street, a group that helps those living with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) improve their quality of life by lessening the financial burden associated with the disease, will hold its first-ever Island event on July 25.
The First Annual Tim Sheehy Softball Classic is a pledge event. Each player is dedicated to raising $1,000 so that each team can raise $10,000. Project Main Street Executive Committee Member Katie Sheehy says, “With seven teams, that’s a huge amount of money for us,” and it’s money they need, she says, because they have four families waiting for help. At projectmainst.org, you can donate to the team of your choice.
Katie and Tim
Both the Island and the cause are very personal to Katie Sheehy. In 2007, Island-raised Sheehy lost her husband, Islander Tim Sheehy, to ALS. Of Tim, Katie says, “Tim was a healthy 37-year-old 6'1" athlete, and he was dead in three years [after experiencing his first symptoms].”
The couple got together when Katie was 18 years old, in 1990. She says, “He is sort of a legend on the Island among our peers. When I tell you he was like Superman, I am not exaggerating. He was so fit and so good at so many things. He could do anything.”
“He grew up in 560 and I grew up in 510. I always knew who he was because he was super, super handsome and when I was a teenager, everyone hung out on Main Street. But he and I didn’t actually speak until the summer I went away to college and he had just finished. He was four years older than me.”
Tim Sheehy went to the University of South Carolina on a soccer scholarship, soccer being the unofficial sport of the Island. He was also artistic. Katie says he was into graffiti and started a set-building business in 1999 with a friend, Christopher Myers. By then, Tim and Katie were married and living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, on the second floor of a walkup.
In 2004, they celebrated the birth of their daughter. Katie says, “That’s basically when Timmy started noticing something was wrong with him. He started almost tripping. It’s called a dropped foot. You go to take a step and the foot that you’re stepping with, the toe, points down a little too low. So when you try to go flat it doesn’t quite work and you catch yourself. That was the beginning. We had a brand-new baby. We started seeing a bunch of doctors. They all pretty much said it was ALS.”
ALS attacks the nerve cells, motor neurons, responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. It is rapidly progressive and invariably fatal. Eventually, all muscles under voluntary control are affected, and individuals lose their strength and the ability to move their arms, legs, and body. When muscles in the diaphragm and chest wall fail, people lose the ability to breathe without ventilator support. Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure, usually within 3 to 5 years from the onset of symptoms.
In 90 to 95 percent of all ALS cases, the disease occurs apparently at random, with no clearly associated risk factors.
Project Main Street
Like so many kids who grow up on the Island, Emmett Towey met his best friend here – Tim Sheehy. They were part of a larger, very tight-knit group of friends. Once Tim was ill, it wasn’t long before he could no longer work. Towey and their other friends were always asking how they could help Tim and Katie.
Katie recalls, “Timmy always said no. When somebody is sick, people want to help, but it’s really hard to actually tell somebody how to help you, and take the help. Eventually, [Tim] was hospitalized, and we ended up with my parents upstate for a couple of months and [Tim] was in a wheelchair. After that hospitalization, he never walked again. Emmett was like, ‘You have to let us help you.’ Finally, Tim said, ‘I’ll let you help us, but it has to be a real thing. It has to be a real charity. It has to go on after I am gone.’ These guys aren’t business majors or philanthropists. They are just his friends.”
By early spring of 2006, Project Main Street was born. The first benefit raised enough money for Tim, Katie, and daughter Frances to leave Brooklyn. At that point, Tim needed to be carried up and down the stairs in their Brooklyn walkup. They moved upstate to a small house near Katie’s parents. Katie says, “[Tim’s friends from the Island] came up all of the time. Tim worked on Project Main Street. It was his last big project and he took it very seriously. He wrote scathing emails to the board if they didn’t do what he wanted. It was really important to him that the [organization] went on after he died.”
The purpose of Project Main Street is not research to find a cure, but to help families affected by ALS while the sufferer is alive. Katie is the family liaison. She says, “When the requests come in, they get directed to me. I find out what the needs are; I confirm with the doctor that the person has ALS. I talk to the social worker and then I go to the board and we cut the check. It’s completely for the family. So it goes for bathroom renovations, ramps, wheelchairs, to help pay for nursing or home health aides. Our fundraising efforts are really important because we’re such a small charity.”
They work fast. Towey says, “80% of ALS sufferers die within three years of their diagnosis, and then 80% of those remaining die within five years. That’s why we need things to happen very quickly. We help people live a better life while they’re living. We can’t tell someone who asks for money that we’ll get back to them in six months. Six months is a huge amount of time when you’re dealing with that kind of an illness.”
Of Tim, Katie says, “Tim refused a ventilator. He faced it naturally,” and ultimately died on April 23, 2007. The first event Project Main Street had without Tim was in the fall of 2007 and, according to Towey, Project Main Street has raised over $800,000 in the past couple of years.
Emmett and Tim
“I have this friend who died, my best friend. And he had a little girl when he died. She watched him go through this, so horrific. There has to be something we can create from this that is good. The motivation for starting this was for Tim and who he was,” explains Towey.
Towey credits the Island for the success of the organization. He says, “I’ve known Brad Armstrong [Project Main Street Board of Directors] since third grade, John Sciambi [also a Board member] since third grade. People are shocked that I have friends that I am still good friends with for as long as they have been. A lot of people don’t have those kinds of relationships. That’s a testament to [Project Main Street], but it’s also a testament to Roosevelt Island, in a lot of ways, and how we grew up, and what kind of melting pot it was.”
Towey explains, “I’ve got friends who are cops, firemen, drug addicts, in jail, or really successful. That’s Roosevelt Island in a nutshell. The point is, we had all of these people we had grown up with who had gone into all of these walks of life, and what happened was we created this project and everyone rallied around Tim and this cause [donating whatever special skills they had].”
“[Islander] Anthony Carbonetti was the chief of staff under Mayor Guiliani. He was generous and donated a round of golf with the mayor at a benefit auction we had. That raised like $13,000. [Islander] John Sciambi, who works at ESPN, was also really generous in donating all sorts of sports memorabilia.”
“Tim loved Roosevelt Island. He loved that small-town feeling. I think that’s really why people stay friends for so long,” muses Katie. This is Project Main Street’s first event on Roosevelt Island, and also the first using Tim’s name and photo. Both Towey and Katie recall how much Tim enjoyed playing softball on the Island.