When the Huntington Manor Fire Department made its annual holiday appearance in the Huntington Station Waldbaum's parking lot last Saturday, it was obvious someone was missing. In a crowd that included parents and children, Santa and Big Bird, a small group of firefighters and Waldbaum's employees were holding a sign in front of a decked-out fire truck.
It read: "We Miss You Lorraine."
Lorraine Boccio, a customer service representative at the Waldbaum's store, helped organize the annual gathering for several years. But the event took on new meaning when Boccio was diagnosed with stage III pancreatic cancer shortly before Thanksgiving.
When her co-organizers found out that Boccio would be in the hospital and unable to attend Saturday's outing, they brought the party to her. After celebrating with the community, the parade of decorated trucks and costumed characters headed to .
The idea was to surprise the woman who has given so much to her community and who is now facing her own challenge. After finding out about Boccio's illness, co-workers organized a fundraiser. Santa presented her with the proceeds at the hospital.
Robert Herley, chief of the Huntington Manor Fire Department, spoke on behalf of the firefighters. "You've done so much for us," Herley told Boccio. "No matter what it is that you need, someone will be there to help you."
Boccio tried to talk Herley into buying a new defibrillator with the money instead. The offer was politely refused.
"It's overwhelming," Boccio said of the outpouring of love and support that she has received.
Folks have been quick to rally around Boccio because she'd been doing the same for others going back nine years. Inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks, Boccio organized so many fundraisers, tributes, veterans events and community service projects, that it's difficult to keep track of them all.
"Not only does she give of herself but she teaches others and encourages them to give," friend Mary Beth Steenson Kraese said. "She is an inspiration to all in the community, and has helped many local kids fulfill their community service requirements for school and scouts."
Initially Boccio set out to find the names of local families who had lost loved ones on 9/11. She called each home to offer condolences and to explain that she wanted to do something special for the children left behind.
Boccio began collecting money at Waldbaum's by setting out cups at the registers. She made announcements while people shopped to encourage them to donate. She posted pictures and stories about the victims on the store's bulletin board. Boccio's doggedness paid off. She said the effort collected more than $4,000.
"But it wasn't about the money," Boccio said. "I just wanted these families to know that their community cared about them and was there to support them."
When the time came to shop, she gathered about a dozen kids who worked at the store, plus a few adults for support, and the group descended on Toys R Us. They filled nearly 20 shopping carts with the specific toys from the Christmas lists of the children of 35 local families. After wrapping and carefully organizing all of the gifts, they went from door to door to deliver them.
"Most of the people that we visited had lost a husband and father," Boccio said. "And every wife and mother who answered the door burst into tears as we arrived."
Much of Boccio's effort has been directed toward servicemen and veterans from the Huntington community. Every year she collects and mails packages to troops overseas.
The idea started after hearing stories of young soldiers who were being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. She wanted to do something to let them know that there were people back home -- people that they didn't even know -- who wanted to show their thanks and support. She asked shoppers to pick up a small item -- a pack of gum, toothbrush or magazine -- and to drop it in the boxes at the front of the store.
The first year she filled 20 large boxes to be shipped overseas, which presented its own problem.
"For some reason I thought that military shipping was free," Boccio said.
It wasn't until someone asked her how she was going to pay the $1,900 needed for postage that her project nearly unravelled. Boccio laughed as she recalled a mistake that could have halted the entire effort. Without skipping a beat, she reached out to customers once again and raised the money in three days.
Her volunteerism is equally significant because it's spurred others to act. There were many occasions where she encouraged the teenagers that she worked with to get involved with her projects.
Jen Corcoran was 16 when she met Boccio at Waldbaum's. "I really wasn't interested in the beginning," Corcoran said. "But she had a way of pushing you and making you feel guilty if you said no."
Eventually Corcoran found herself looking forward to the involvement. Years later she is still helping out and has found that it has added something very meaningful to her life.
"She has impacted so many of our customers," Corcoran said. "We just got a holiday card from a surviving cancer patient that she helped a few years ago. A lot of them don't even know about her illness yet."
Boccio faced her second chemotherapy treatment Wednesday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Commack.
"I know what I have." she said. "I know the survival rate.
"The first night after I was diagnosed, I sent all of my family away," she said. "I wanted to be alone. I curled up in my bed and I cried. I thought of my 7-month-old granddaughter -- the joy of my life -- and how unfair it was that I may not see her first birthday. I gave up on myself. But the next morning I got up and I took a shower and decided that I'm just going to see where I am and what my treatment options are and just deal with each day.
"When such a time comes that I have to deal with more, I will. But, it's not today and it's not tomorrow."
It's a tough diagnosis. While Boccio focuses on outlasting the cancer, she hopes her many community contributions inspire others to keep giving.
If she has a Christmas wish, it's this: "I know everyone is busy and has their own concerns," Boccio said. "But when you hear of something going on in your community, just do one small thing. Do whatever you want to do, but just do something."