Tim Toy, We Serve First foundation continue to provide volleyball opportunities for area high school players
The dreaded news came to Ellen and Tim Toy late in 2015, the diagnosis they never wanted to hear: The latest battle in Ellen’s yearslong fight with cancer had an end date.
“Six months to a year,” Tim recalled recently, about two and a half years removed from Ellen’s death Feb. 22, 2016, from stomach cancer.
The Toys put that limited time to good use, hardly surprising for Ellen, who came back to coach volleyball at Kiski Area after missing two separate seasons while fighting cancer, the second time after having her stomach removed. The couple, who began the “Jam the Gym” fundraiser for cancer research at Kiski Area in 2010 as Ellen Toy and her assistant, Jaime Vick Moran, battled separate forms of cancer, again put their chosen sport to good use. They founded the We Serve First foundation to provide financial support to athletes pursuing volleyball opportunities.
“It was an attempt to make something positive out of a difficult situation,” Tim said. “We had some early people that we got to do some things for, and it really gave her something to look up to, something to be proud of as things got a little scary and difficult.”
When Tim Toy learned of the Give It Back Foundation camp July 21-22, in Anaheim, Calif., he decided to take an extra step by backing the camp admission for Plum’s Makayla Jackson, Leechburg’s McKenna Pierce and Kiski Area’s Cassie Shoupe, representing the three schools where Ellen coached in her long career, as well as paying for the attendance of Plum coach Kelsey Bonk.
The players will get instruction from current and former members of the U.S. National Team, with whom Ellen and Tim Toy developed a relationship during Ellen’s final years, traveling to watch the team play a handful of times. Tim even traveled to Brazil, for the 2016 Summer Olympics after Ellen’s passing.
“Ellen inspired us, and Tim inspired us, by how they were approaching what they were going through and how they were trying to serve others in that process and made us want to be better and use our platform in a positive way,” said Courtney Thompson, a two-time Olympian and part of the upcoming camp. “We’ve only gotten closer and closer. I think it’s a lot of mutual respect, and we’re both inspired to be better.”
Toy originally planned to back one player’s attendance at the camp, seeking input from local coaches about worthy candidates, before ultimately deciding to expand it to three and one coach.
Shoupe, a rising senior at Kiski Area who played for Ellen Toy as a seventh-grader, learned about the camp after receiving a text message from her current coach, Paul Tomlinson.
“He said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up,” said Shoupe, who ultimately agreed with that opinion.
“I think it’s great because Ellen was a really great person, so obviously her legacy does need to keep moving on. I’m happy that all three of us get to carry it.”
Pierce, a rising sophomore at Leechburg, attended a recent camp at Clarion after receiving similar support from the We Serve First Foundation.
“I just think it’s so generous and nice of her to think of expanding volleyball in the area and getting volleyball to be more of a prominent sport,” she said. “Just being able to carry over what Ellen (did) is really nice.”
Jackson, a rising sophomore hitter and relative newcomer to volleyball, was recommended by Bonk.
“I just thought it was a crazy opportunity, and I was honored that my coach thought of me,” she said.
Bonk, who played volleyball for Ellen Toy at Westmoreland Elite and took part in Jam the Gym as a college volleyball player at Carlow, remembered her former coach as “the world’s sweetest woman” and commended Tim Toy’s work with the foundation.
“They’re changing these girls’ lives by helping them out,” Bonk said. “Whether it’s financially needed or just deserving like some of these girls are, what this foundation is doing is so hard to put into words. All of this fundraising and Tim’s hard work to carry on Ellen’s legacy, it’s really incredible.”
In addition to the on-court work in Anaheim, players will receive classroom instruction on topics like confidence building, goal-setting, nutrition and training, things Shoupe is looking forward to. They’ll also get to do some exploring -- Pierce is excited for a trip to Disneyland -- and interact with current and former members of Team USA.
“To me, it’s the best part of camp to watch my teammates and former teammates connect with these kids,” Thompson said. “We all remember when we were a kid, and you meet that one person and you’re just like, oh my gosh. They take the time to get to know you, to help you out, to teach you, to share a little bit about yourself, it just plants the seed of hey, this is possible.”
Proceeds from the camp benefit charity, Thompson said.
Toy will not be attending the camp, but he said he hopes to hear some good stories when the players and Bonk return, and he also hopes they’ll bring back knowledge to share with their high school teammates.
In addition to supporting efforts like this in the future, Toy is looking to sponsor athletes in poorer communities to expand the sport of volleyball to everyone.
And while the loss of his wife remains extremely difficult, Toy hopes he can show strength to people in similar situations: Keep up the fight, no matter what.
“The last thing I need to do besides the foundation and supporting these athletes, is to also show people that have gone through similar things to what I’ve gone through is they can get through it and thrive on the other side of it,” he said. ” ... In the end, I’m the last one left. It is about survival and sticktoitiveness, and people who have gone through loss can still do great things if they just pick themselves up.”