When a procession of vehicles led by a honking fire truck arrives outside your home and a swarm of TV cameras led by the founder of a national charity gets out and tells you you’ve won a trip to Florida amusement parks, just one thought comes to mind, at least for the little boy who’s had a tough life and isn’t used to such hubbub.
“Are we going right now? Because the party just started,” said Caleb Cunniff, quite dryly and to much laughter, after hearing the news Friday morning.
All the attention and cameras sure felt like a party for the 7-year-old, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy five years ago and who lost his father, state Trooper David Cunniff, in a Thruway accident one year ago this coming Wednesday.
He and his brother, 6-year-old Zachary, stood excitedly in the driveway of their Duanesburg home Friday morning, basking in the attention and wanting to know if they would get to meet “Lego Darth Vader” at the Legoland theme park.
Indeed they would come March, as part of an all-expenses-paid Florida vacation to Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and more. The trip comes courtesy of Baking Memories 4 Kids, a foundation that sells homemade chocolate chip cookies and uses the proceeds to send kids with life-threatening illnesses and their families to Florida amusement parks for a week.
Typically, an individual will nominate a child and their family for the special trip through a form on the nonprofit’s website, and the foundation selects families from there. But in Caleb’s case, charity founder Frank Squeo hand-selected him for the trip after watching news coverage of his father’s death last December.
David Cunniff was 35 when he died Dec. 17, 2013, from injuries sustained in the line of duty. He had pulled over a car near Thruway Exit 27 in Amsterdam the day before and was still inside his cruiser when a tractor-trailer crossed from the left lane to the right and plowed into the two cars parked on the shoulder. While Cunniff died from his injuries, the driver of the other vehicle, also injured, survived. The truck driver was unhurt.
Cunniff left behind his wife, Amy, and their two sons. That alone was heartbreaking, Squeo said, but then he learned of the family’s struggles before that fateful day. They had fought tirelessly for years for a cure for spinal muscular atrophy, a diagnosis that left Caleb with muscle weakness and mobility impairment and can lead to death if he contracts respiratory complications.
“How could you not?” Squeo said of his desire to give them the trip. “But really, how could you watch that and not want to help? There was no gray area here. I pushed to get to this day, because this family needed to go.”
Squeo, who splits time between homes in Bolton Landing and Rockland County, founded the charity after discovering a lump on his neck while hiking the red rock landscape of Sedona, Arizona, in 2007. He spent the next few months in appointments, consultations and getting biopsies. When his doctors surgically removed the lump, they discovered he had an advanced form of testicular cancer that was days away from entering his brain. He underwent a second surgery almost immediately, followed by three months of chemotherapy.
Unsure of his future, Squeo thought of his favorite memories — time spent at Florida amusement parks and baking what his friends and family deemed the “best chocolate chip cookies they’ve ever tasted.” The foundation was born from there.
Squeo convened with supporters, state troopers, area firefighters, local officials and media Friday morning at the Pine Grove Volunteer Fire Department in Princetown before making the 10-minute drive to the Cunniff home on Duanesburg Road.
After a hurried walk up the snow-covered driveway to greet the boys and their mother, Squeo announced the news and chatted with the boys about which characters they were most excited to see (Lego Darth Vader, hands down) and about their father, whose shield number (5128) was sewn into their caps that cold winter morning. They munched on homemade chocolate chip cookies, and Caleb zipped without purpose a few inches forward and a few inches back in his motorized wheelchair as people swarmed around him.
State troopers have been visiting the home at least once a week since David Cunniff’s death, just to stop in, say hi and check on everyone, said Sgt. Brian Dollard. Cunniff, a 9-year state police veteran, was their family, he said.
“His family is part of our family,” he said. “We won’t forget Dave’s sacrifice, and we won’t forget the Cunniff family. With Caleb’s condition, it’s a little more important that we make sure they have everything they need and are well taken care of.”
The anniversary of Cunniff’s death falls eight days before Christmas. There’s nothing his wife could put under the tree that could top Friday’s surprise for the kids, she said.
“It’s something to focus on and be excited about, you know?” she said. “Every day Dave is not here is hard and painful, but I try to focus on how he lived life and not how he died. You know, dates roll around and they’re hard, but I’m glad we have this to talk about.”
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Categories: News, Schenectady County