Ceili Leahy’s memory serves to inspire James Monroe seniors

by | Apr 16, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Non-Profits

Ceili Leahy had already come to terms with her own mortality when she summoned the words to describe service as an enduring human force.   

“As terrible as cancer is, it opened my eyes to the goodness in people,” Leahy, a 2014 James Monroe High School graduate, wrote shortly before her death from cancer in January 2016. “It was just the most beautiful thing to see what people can do for each other when they’re inspired.” 

More than eight years later, Leahy’s memory still serves as a source of inspiration for students at her alma mater.  

Around 8 a.m. on Friday, approximately 160 James Monroe seniors fanned out across the city for the Ceili Leahy Day of Service. Some needed a high-quality work-based learning opportunity to fulfill a graduation requirement, while others simply wished to volunteer. 

The preparation for Friday’s event began months ago, as students completed learning modules about participating area nonprofits during English class. From there, they further narrowed their interests and ranked their preferred volunteer projects.  

Senior Maggie Lacy opted to get into the weeds — literally — clearing a garden bed of winter ground cover and invasive plants to expose perennials to light at Downtown Greens, one of 11 participating nonprofits.  

Lacy, who plans to attend Virginia Tech next year and major in environmental science, served on a 16-student planning committee that helped to organize this year’s event.  

“I like that this gave me a chance to give back to the community in a way that also benefited the environment,” she said.  

Fellow senior Angelina Badasu admitted that she didn’t know in advance where she’d be assigned, but a morning spent uprooting plants hearkened back to her childhood in Kasoa, Ghana, a small town outside the capital city of Accra.

“It brought back memories from when I used to weed with a cutlass with my auntie back home,” said Badasu, who immigrated to the United States in 2017. “It just brought me back to there.” 

Ceili Leahy’s penchants for service and social justice became clear during her sophomore year at JM, when she joined the school’s Amnesty International Club.

“She was just a regular kid, but she was a very avid volunteer,” her father John Leahy said. “She loved our Fredericksburg community.” 

Her ardor didn’t fade even when, in July 2013, she was diagnosed with metastatic Ewing’s sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. She began treatment immediately and was fully bald by September, the first month of her senior year. 

“She walked the halls, she went to class and got some really great accommodations,” said Ceili’s mother Leslie. “And she beat it.” 

While in remission, Ceili began attending the University of Virginia, where she quickly became enmeshed in the flagship state university’s activism scene, attending protests for women’s rights and in favor of fair wages for UVA employees. She found constructive outlets such as Habitats for Humanity and community gardens.  

After a fulfilling first semester at UVA, Ceili fell ill once more in March. Subsequent tests led to a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, a secondary cancer that developed as the result of the aggressive treatments she’d endured.  

“She was waiting for the ball to drop, and the ball dropped and she got it,” Leslie Leahy said.  

The first Ceili Leahy Day of Service was held out of the Leahy family home on a Saturday in October 2016. Somewhere around 30 students participated in what was considered a JM-sponsored activity to raise money for a scholarship in Ceili’s name.  

The inaugural day of service “didn’t raise as much money, but we saw how magical it was,” John Leahy said.  

From that point on, the event was held twice per year in the fall and spring. In 2019, the Leahys formed a 501(c)(3) charitable organization called the Ceili Leahy Service Project, with information about days of service and how to make donations.  

In 2020, when the pandemic upended every extracurricular activity, the Leahys pivoted, holding a virtual day of service in which students wrote or sent artwork to people in hospice and assisted living. 

“We always thought that we inspired volunteers,” Leslie Leahy said. “The word ‘recruit’ is kind of harsh. We’d inspire kids to get involved and help them do their good work in the community.” 

The current arrangement came into focus in December 2022, when James Monroe Career and Technical Education Coordinator Kristi Allison approached the Leahys with a predicament — as well as a proposition.

“I came to them because I had 70-something students who needed something to graduate from high school,” Allison recalled. “Part of that something could be a high-quality work-based learning opportunity, which service-learning fell into that category.” 

The Leahys eagerly came on board as consultants, and the Ceili Leahy Senior Day of Service was born. Last year, the event partnered with nine local nonprofits and was considered such a success that both parties decided to reprise it in 2024. 

“We’re very fortunate we have hungry students who want to get involved,” Leslie Leahy said. 

The Leahys spoke to the entire 240-member JM senior class during a January assembly, sharing Ceili’s story and how the day of service has evolved over time. They’re confident that their daughter would view their efforts approvingly, but not without issuing her own self-assured call to action. 

“She would be saying, like, ‘I did it, you guys can do it.’” Leslie Leahy said. 

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