On May 19 and 20, Islanders will have the chance to do some sports stargazing while also supporting Project Main Street, a homegrown charity dedicated to helping patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) live a better life.
The third annual Tim Sheehy Softball Classic Tournament will be held on Saturday, May 20, on the Island’s Capobianco Field across from Westview from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. A gala and auction will be held the previous night, May 19, at Empire Casino in Yonkers, and will be hosted by ESPN’s Jon Sciambi and Dan Le Batard. Both events will be studded with sports stars, including former Major League Baseball players Aaron Boone, Mike Lowell, Javier Vazquez, Eduardo Perez, Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy, and others.
Project Main Street (projectmainst.org) was conceived and founded by Roosevelt Island native Tim Sheehy during his own struggle with ALS. Although Sheehy died in 2007, Project Main Street has been carried on by his wife, Katie, and a group of loyal childhood friends, all of whom grew up on the Island. The organization has partnered with the likeminded Team Gleason, a New Orleans-based charity that provides assistive technology for ALS patients.
Growing up on Roosevelt Island in the 70s and 80s, Tim Sheehy was, by all accounts, larger than life. His friends and peers describe him as a fierce friend and someone to look up to.
Sheehy was the first goalie for the traveling soccer team, the Roosevelt Island Strikers, in the 1980s and led the team to its 1984 victory in the B Division conference. His talent on the soccer field won him a college scholarship to the University of South Carolina, a Division I school.
However, it was his talent off the field that is remembered best by his friends and family.
“What I tell our daughter Frances,” writes Katie Cooney-Sheehy, “is that he was the sort of person who appreciated the experiences in life more than outcomes, he valued small interactions with people and he had an amazing way of making people feel special.”
Brad Armstrong, chairman of the Project Main Street board of directors, and longtime friend of Sheehy, reminisces, “Roosevelt Island was a much smaller place then, and those of us who were a little younger saw Tim as our leader; he was revered. If he liked something, everyone liked it, if he was wearing something, you wanted to wear it too.”
Sheehy attended PS 217 until sixth grade and then continued to middle school and high school in the City with his two best friends, Emmett Towey and Andrew Carol. When both Sheehy and Towey attended college down south, Towey says they began taking epic journeys together up and down the east coast to and from their universities. “Those were some of the best times of our lives,” remembers Towey. “It never seemed like any time had passed between us. We were best friends and, even when we were starting families, we were always in touch.”
In 1999, Sheehy married his longtime sweetheart, Katie Cooney and, soon after, opened a set-design company, Composition Workshop. While Katie was pregnant, Tim experienced his first symptoms, but insisted it was Lyme disease. The couple had daughter Frances Rose in February 2004.
“He loved playing golf at the time,” recalls Towey, “but one day I saw him losing his balance and limping...I knew something was wrong.”
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It’s incurable; patients are typically given two to five years to live after diagnosis.
ALS patients suffer a gradual decline, eventually losing the ability to move their arms, legs, speech and bodily functions as the disease progresses. They do not lose their ability to see, hear, taste, nor any cognitive abilities. Instead, ALS victims witness their own demise, finally losing their ability to breathe.
When Sheehy told his friends about his disease, they all sought a way to pitch in. In 2005, when Sheehy was hospitalized and the medical bills started piling up, Towey decided to get the friends together and do something about it.
Project Main Street
“[Tim’s] first reaction was: don’t do anything. There was some denial. But later he realized he needed the help…he didn’t want to make it about himself, which is how he came up with the idea for Project Main Street,” Armstrong recounts.
Once out of the hospital, Sheehy and the group held roundtable discussions with a wide range of professionals, almost all of whom were friends and old-time Islanders. Sheehy insisted he didn’t want to open a charity for research, but rather understand the extreme difficulty of living with ALS, to help the quality of life of ALS patients and their families.
“Tim’s progression was quick,” Emmett recalls. “I was surprised every time I saw him – first with a cane, then crutches, and finally in a chair unable to use his legs. We were there with him through the whole journey as his daily life became progressively more difficult.”
The name Project Main Street, as well as the design and intent of the organization, were all Sheehy’s conception, but it is his wife and friends that have been carrying his way forward for the past decade, all volunteering their time making Project Main Street a success.
The first fundraiser was held in April of 2006 with Sheehy in attendance. The event was a community effort: Tom Costello, a Rivercross tenant and longtime friend of the family, who was a linebacker for the NY Giants in the 1960s, got a few sports personalities involved. Sheehy recruited his college friend, Jim Sonefeld, who by then had become famous with the Hootie & the Blowfish band, to perform. Former Islander Jon Sciambi, an ESPN baseball sportscaster and longtime friend of Sheehy’s, also got some athletes involved. Together, they raised a whopping $275,000.
Tim Sheehy died on April 23, 2007.
Since then, Project Main Street has had years of successful fundraising, helping dozens of ALS patients improve their quality of life. They’ve held everything from music events to poker nights to book nights to jewelry fundraisers. Finally, the group reached a point where they realized it was time to move to the next level; they needed a serious partner that had the infrastructure necessary to grow.
Towey explains, “The softball event started two years ago and was a booming success, but we said ‘Ok, we have a music event and a softball event, now what?’”
Sciambi came up with the idea of connecting Project Main Street with Team Gleason, a charity named after former New Orleans Saints football player and ALS patient Steve Gleason.
Justin Towey, who visited the Gleason house in New Orleans, clarifies, “We teamed up with the Gleason foundation because they have more of the infrastructure and the ability to distribute the money better than a grassroots organization that was really just a bunch of friends getting together to help a friend,” explains Towey. “We continue to do it and it’s been great, and we keep his memory alive, but they are much better equipped at running a charity…so we can continue to have the softball event on Roosevelt Island, keep the identity of Tim and Project Main Street around, but have the infrastructure of a professional organization.”
Team Gleason provides cutting edge technology for ALS patients, something that is in tune with Project Main Street’s mission statement. The foundation helps patients live a full life with ALS, achieve their dream adventures, creating more awareness for ALS, and providing equipment to give ALS patients the independence to thrive, despite their illness.
The Gleason House in New Orleans, only the second of its kind, currently houses nine patients full-time, providing them with the technology and environment they need to live a full life. Beyond the obvious fit in goals and infrastructure, Casey noticed a much deeper connection.
“I took the time to learn about Tim and realized that Tim and Steve were very similar as people,” says Blair Casey of Team Gleason. “As founders, Tim did for Project Main Street what Steve did for Team Gleason; he gave them a vision.”
Sometimes out of the darkness comes light. Sometimes you just need to light a candle. Tim Sheehy lit a candle for the tens of thousands of people affected by ALS. While Tim may have succumbed to the disease, his spirit, his leadership, and his incredible sense of community, one that came from the small tightly-knit community of Roosevelt Island, lives on.
To support this incredible fund, and spread awareness about ALS, while elevating the Island spirit, please consider buying tickets to the Gala night, or going online to projectmainst.org and donating. Donations will be accepted at the game as well.