Senior education major Jillian Flaherty was selected to throw the first pitch at the Red Sox game on April 29, 2015 at Fenway Park to mark the beginning of a month-long in-store fundraiser held by the American Lung Association (ALA) and CVS Health to raise awareness about lung cancer.
Over the past year, Flaherty has taken on the role of “LUNG FORCE hero,” becoming a spokesperson for the ALA and an advocate against smoking – educating people across the world about lung cancer.
Though known for her smile and positivity, Flaherty has known tragedy.
“In 2011, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. Thirty-five percent of her lung was removed. They thought they got it all,” said Flaherty.
Nine months later, when Flaherty’s mother, Brenda Villa, experienced numbness in her foot, doctors discovered her cancer had spread from her lung to her liver. Flaherty lost not only her mother to lung cancer in 2012, but her best friend.
Her sister, Erin Flaherty, said, “It has been really tough on her because she is the littlest one. Our mom was her number one fan.”
Jillian Flaherty said her mother’s death was “lifestyle changing. I’ve always spent lots of time with my family but now I spend even more time with them.
“It showed me how lucky I am to have the family I do. Everyone was there for each other,” said Flaherty.
After her mother’s passing, Flaherty said, “I flung myself back into school.”
Robert Villa, Flaherty’s stepfather, said, “When she was little, she had a classroom in our house. She has always wanted to be a teacher like her mother.”
Flaherty added, “Ever since I can remember, I was always playing school. Filling my coffee cup with soda and pretending it was coffee. Teaching my imaginary students and making worksheets for my family to fill out.”
Flaherty said her mother’s death made her “mature faster than most people our age.”
Villa said that his wife’s death “caused Jillian to grow up. … She is an inspiration. It is great to watch her inspire others. It’s a perfect example of turning a tragedy, something terrible, into something positive.
“She would have made her mother proud,” he added.
Although graduation is approaching, Flaherty has already become a teacher before getting her degree by educating people about lung cancer.
Flaherty had a political geography class with Professor Kevin Surprise in which students were assigned the task of advocating for something in which they believed. The project ultimately motivated Flaherty to speak out against smoking.
Flaherty remembers sitting in her room trying unsuccessfully to record herself on her computer. It wasn’t until she spoke to her sister, Cassie Villa, an employee at the marketing studio Cramer, that she had professional help in creating her video, “A Voice of Reason.”
Cassie Villa said, “We were fortunate to have these resources because it acted as a launch pad for Jillian’s message.”
Flaherty said she uploaded the video to YouTube “not really thinking” that it would become a viral hit. Within two days, the video had over 6,000 views and she began to get comments and emails from people all around the world telling her what an inspiration she was.
This correspondence included a girl from Ireland who shared her own story with Flaherty. “That was pretty cool,” she said about the positive feedback.
“I am happy I am helping to make a difference. I want people to connect to my story,” said Flaherty. Although she remains positive, she emphasized, “It never got easier,” referring to losing her mother.
On campus, Flaherty said her video “has prevented people from smoking in front of [her]. It isn’t going to stop me from talking to someone or being friends with someone who smokes because I understand it is a hard habit to quit.” She said she is thankful the campus is smoke-free.
One year after her mother’s passing, Flaherty’s aunt, a guidance counselor at Chariho High School, asked her to speak at a town meeting in Rhode Island.
Flaherty said after she spoke at the meeting and presented her video, she continued to look for new ways to spread her message, which eventually led her to the ALA Web site. She submitted her story to an ALA campaign initiative called LUNG FORCE.
Flaherty received a call from an ALA associate inviting her to join a panel of six other people with a connection to lung cancer to promote the LUNG FORCE initiative.
“I was the youngest,” she said. But the entire panel “got really close really fast. It was an emotional night,” she added.
After that presentation, Flaherty was invited to participate in an interview-style video produced by LUNG FORCE.
Then the ALA and the Boston Red Sox selected Flaherty to throw the first pitch at the Red Sox game last week.
Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy at CVS Health, said that LUNG FORCE and the CVS health campaign are determined to raise awareness about lung cancer – the number one cancer killer of men and women in the United States.
“Last year, we raised more than $3.6 million. This year, we hope to beat that with Jillian’s help,” Boone said.
She added that she is “so impressed by Jillian. She is an amazing human being with high energy and enthusiasm. She is a reflection of everything we want – a perfect ambassador” for the cause.
Flaherty said the whole experience was “surreal – a once in a lifetime experience.”
Being on the field and getting interviewed “went by really fast,” she said. “I wasn’t sure whom I was talking to,” Flaherty said, giggling, “but I was very happy to talk and [tell] my story.
“I was in a state of shock – a good shock,” said Flaherty. “I want my voice to be a voice of reason. If you put your mind to something you can accomplish anything. I am making a difference and I want to continue to do so.”