Eighteen-year-old Russell O’Neal wanted very much to live.
But according to his family, his humility and unwavering religious faith produced in him an extraordinary strength that allowed him to face death and graciously accept it as “God’s perfect plan for his life.”
When his mother, Debbie O’Neal, asked if he had asked God to heal his cancer, she said he replied, “No, I know that God can heal me if he wants to, but I just want his will to be done.”
After battling the disease for four years, Russell died Feb. 4, 2012, with his parents and two brothers beside him on his bed, said Debbie.
But the impact of his life was just beginning.
Russell’s parents, Debbie and Jeff O’Neal, are spreading Russell’s message of hope and honoring his love for others by helping pediatric cancer victims and their families. They have formed The Russell O’Neal Impact Foundation, a nonprofit organization, “to provide financial assistance to families of children battling cancer, as well as emotional assistance to inspire the families to face the disease with hope,” according to the foundation’s mission statement.
“We saw the daily struggles and what it does to a family,” said Jeff O’Neal. “We have started this foundation to help others going through this horrible time.”
Russell was a vibrant 15-year-old two weeks shy of his sophomore year at Highland School of Technology in Gastonia when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, his parents said. He was a straight-A student, played basketball, had a good singing voice and played the guitar in the youth band at church, but those accomplishments didn’t define him, they said.
“Russell had a huge heart,” said Debbie O’Neal. “He never said anything bad about anyone. He couldn’t stand to see someone left out or mistreated. He wanted everyone to feel loved and wanted.”
When the students at Highland made a banner for Russell, someone wrote anonymously: “I am the outcast and freak here at Highland; no one ever speaks to me, but you have always gone out of your way to say hey and talk to me.”
Just days after he received the devastating news that he was no longer in remission and the cancer had spread, Debbie said, Russell stood before a local church congregation and told them to “cling to the hope you have in Jesus Christ. He’ll bring you through. Cling to your family, cling to your friends. Love as much as you can, while you can, and do everything you can for the Lord.”
The foundation’s first project is to raise funds to help build a cabin/activity center at Camp CARE in Lake Lure, a camp for children with cancer.
Russell loved Camp CARE, Debbie said.
“Before he went to camp, he could hardly get out of bed,” she said. “But at camp, he was swimming at 6:30 in the morning, climbing and swinging from a rope swing over a lake.” His plan was eventually to become a counselor.
Camp CARE, for Cancer Ain’t Really the End, was founded in 1985 by a group of health care professionals to provide cancer patients a chance to escape the realities of living with the disease and be a regular kid for a while. The camp can house 150 campers, and the new building would allow for 30 more.
To raise money, the Impact Foundation is sponsoring a Southern Gospel concert featuring Jeff and Sheri Easter on June 21 at Goshen Free Will Baptist Church in Mount Holly. The Southern Gospel duo has won six Dove Awards and been nominated for several Grammys. The foundation is asking for a $10 donation at the door and will give 100 percent of the proceeds to help children with cancer.
The O’Neals, with their sons Wesley and Devin, are still mourning Russell and say they will always miss him.
“I still haven’t been able to go into his room yet,” said Debbie. “He would be so upset to know how upset I was. But our separation is only for a little while compared to the time we will have together in eternity.”
Sandy Whitesides is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Sandy? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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