Tommy Scognamiglio started bringing lollipops for his friends on the bus to school when he was second grade, but one day he refused to give one to next-door neighbor Cassidy McNeill.
The incident remained a running joke between the two close friends long after Scognamiglio stopped bringing the treats, as she would tease him about owing her a lollipop.
"Last year after he got sick, I was over talking to him and I said, 'Tommy, I'm still mad about that one time. You owe me a lollipop,'" McNeill said. "The next day he texted me and said, 'Go to your front porch. I went to my porch and there was a bag of Tootsie lollipops. There was a Post-It note, I still have it. It said. Sorry for that one time. Enjoy. Tommy.
"He was my best friend. I said I will never forget this. He was sick, too, so it made it stick more in my memory."
Scognamiglio had Osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer that commonly strikes teenagers. He died in his sleep Oct. 17. McNeill had talked to him the night before and wanted to visit, but he told her it wasn't a good time.
"I went over there (after he died). I was really confused at first," McNeill said. "I think part of the coping process, they are so strong over there (the Scognamiglio family). I wanted to be strong with them. I wanted to do something to remember him."
About two weeks after her friend's death, McNeill started working on a foundation in his honor and the name was a natural. The Tommy Lollipop Project was born.
"Having this foundation for him, I do something for it every day," McNeill said. "Ordering stuff or Christa (Tommy's sister) was writing letters to kids. Having it is a constant reminder of him. It helps me keep him in my memory really strong. I'm always going to have this foundation in his name. It is helping other kids just like him, going through what he did."
The Tommy Lollipop Project raises money to pay for backpacks and tote bags that they fill with gifts for young cancer patients. So far, they are only working with Montefiore Medical Center, though they plan to expand that to more in the tri-state area. They will have their first giving day Monday at Montefiore.
McNeill gathered friends, neighbors and even Scognamiglio's little sister Lauren at her home in Pearl River Thursday to start packing the bags. They will finish the job Saturday.
There are bags for boys and girls, from toddlers up to teenagers. McNeill said she didn't want anybody to feel left out.
"I know what he wished he had at the time," McNeill said. "He always wanted something to keep him busy. He loved mind teasers, so we have hundreds of mind teasers. Just to give them something to do because it's so boring."
The items range from Barbie dolls for younger girls, to toy helicopters for boys and Alex and Andy bracelets for girls in their teens, which bear the words "Young and Strong."
"They come with a card that explains what young and strong is. I think it is inspirational to have that," Cassidy said.
According to McNeill's mother, JoAnn, Tommy's Lollipop project has already raised over $6,000. Much of that came from the sale of "Tommy Scogs" bracelets for $5 each.
"We had surprising things like a boy who came to the door who goes to Tappan Zee High School. He handed Cassidy cash he wanted to donate," JoAnn McNeill said.
The Pearl River community has been supportive, but it has gone beyond that. Donations have come from students at Tappan Zee and Nanuet High Schools. The Asset Leadership Club at Felix Festa Middle School made a donation. TD Bank donated items for the bags and one of McNeill's classmates has put out a tin to collect donations at a local Dairy Queen.
"It's amazing people outside of the Pearl River community want to help," JoAnn McNeill said. "It makes us feel better."
Tommy's sister Christa Scognamiglio, a freshman at Fairfield University, got friends at college to help her collect donations and fill out Happy Holidays cards so there will be one in each bag. The effort spread as far as Penn State University, where the boyfriend of a member of Fairfield's Cancer Crush Club raised $200.
JoAnn McNeill knows what a challenge this has been for her daughter, who had been spending time with Tommy Scognamiglio since they were both infants.
"I'm very proud. It's just an amazing way for her to battle through the sadness," JoAnn McNeill said. "We're hoping after the day of giving to get 501c3 status. It's going to get bigger and better. Her vision is to someday go to hall the hospitals in the area."
"It's a great thing they are doing raising money for kids like Thomas," said Joe Scognamiglio, Tommy's father.
The foundation already purchased a domain name, though www.tommylollipopproject.org won't go live until after Monday's hospital visit. For those interested in donating or learning more, they can email Tommylollipopproject@gmail.com.