Dr. Casey O’Donnell
Casey O’Donnell next to the Stay-Focused flag on the boat, 2018
Stay-Focused has always been proud to boast about its team of volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure each program is equally impactful. From our mentors to our founder himself, it is rare to find so many who are willing to run the New York City Marathon on behalf of the organization as a charity partner. I am honored to write about my dive buddy, Casey O’Donnell, our Chief Medical Doctor, who will be running the 26.2 miles this year on that notoriously cold and windy course.
At the end of 2003, when founder Roger Muller was planning to launch the first program, he connected with Dr. JenFu Cheng. JenFu was working at Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Jersey and is an accomplished Divemaster with an impressive background in working with children with disabilities. As Roger worked to take the organization from vision to reality, he knew the parents and guardians of participants would be more comfortable letting their teens take the trip to Cayman if a medical doctor was part of the team. In 2004, JenFu introduced us to his colleague, Casey, knowing he would be a terrific addition to the Stay-Focused team.
Ambassadors of the Environment program in the mangroves
As a physiatrist, O’Donnell’s focus is to assist persons with disabling conditions achieve their highest quality of life possible. “Being a former collegiate competitive swimmer, certified swimming instructor, and a SCUBA diver, I felt this was the perfect opportunity to combine my skills in the water with my medical training to help enhance the lives of teens with disabilities,” he states, reflecting on why he was drawn to the organization. While working as a resident-in-training, Casey joined us in the early days and, fortunately for us, with a significant amount of medical training still to go, he committed to being involved with Stay-Focused for the long haul.
As Casey describes it, “I think the most impactful thing I witness on each program is the excitement participants have when participating in a sport without use of their prosthetics or ambulatory assistive devices. It’s also notable to see how the program builds increased self-confidence among participants and inspires them to set higher goals.”
Kayaking with participant, Blake V.
A primary objective of the program is to foster our participants’ sense of independence and confidence. Part of the process involves learning to advocate for themselves, seek care when they need it, and being prepared to hop in the water and dive each day. I genuinely believe that would not occur without the support of medical professionals like Casey who donate their time to participate in our programs. Stay-Focused doctors are available 24/7 to review and discuss medical histories, provide treatment, check in with participants, and participate in all our activities. With his infectious enthusiasm, Casey helps put participants at ease during a program that often represents their first trip out of the country without a parent or guardian. And as a valued member of our team, Casey is always willing to crack a joke and be goofy with the rest of us.
Jill Moore and Casey O’Donnell after a dive
“Recreation is important for everyone, especially persons with disabilities, who may have fewer opportunities accessible to them. Recreational activities improve physical and mental health and are important in building confidence among those with disabilities. Being self-confident enables disabled teens to become more independent, successful, and happier in life.” Given his dedication to ensuring ongoing recreational opportunities for members of the disability community, Casey will be running his fourth marathon on November 7th, as a member of Stay-Focused’s Charity Partner team in this year’s 50th anniversary of the New York City Marathon. With his running mantra being “I am Superman, I can do anything,” we know Casey will be heading to race day feeling confident and ready to go. When we return to Cayman for Stay-Focused’s 19th year of programmatic activity, we will celebrate with a stop at O’Donnell’s favorite Caymanian restaurant, Sunshine Grill, which Casey is convinced has the best fish tacos in Cayman. I am proud I will be cheering on my dive buddy and friend as he embarks on his 26.2 run and look forward to sharing more years of diving with him, wrong-lyrics karaoke, and laughs.
We welcome your support and thank you for donating to Casey’s fund-raising campaign. The 2021 TCS New York City Marathon is our only fundraiser this year and all funds raised will help underwrite our programs in Grand Cayman in the summer of 2022. To donate to Casey’s efforts, please visit our partner page at:
The Power of Community: How Stay-Focused Started My Weight Loss Journey
My first trip with Stay-Focused was in 2017. After a few years of not accepting Roger’s offer (looking back, I only regret not going sooner), I decided to give diving a try. The trip to Cayman became much more than just my first diving experience. As a soon to be high school senior and sled hockey player with eyes set on college, Stay-Focused showed me a community that would support my greatest ambitions.
In the months before my trip, I had become increasingly dissatisfied with both my performance on the ice and the shape of my body. Freshman through junior year I gained about 30 pounds. Now, this would be fine (and quite impressive) for someone who was training vigorously, but I was a typical teenager playing video games until 3:00 am and eating chips by the bag. Frustrated, as the summer of 2017 rolled around, I had even less motivation to change as things worsened. The timing for my trip could not have been better, as my experience with Stay-Focused would provide me with the support I needed but was not able to muster on my own.
Every part of the trip was surreal. While I have been fortunate to travel outside of Long Island, NY, frequently, nothing compares to the invitingly clear water of Cayman. Diving did take some getting used to, but by the end of the week I felt confident in the water. Swimming has always been fatiguing for me with cerebral palsy, so much of my free time was spent napping to keep up with everything we did. I will also say proudly despite the frequent naps, I was never late to our pre-rollout lobby gatherings. Between diving and the amazing food, I did not think the trip could get any better.
One of the exercises we do as a group, a goal-setting activity, is where this story begins. As someone who is occasionally anxious, I was nervous about making losing weight my goal. I frequently debated whether to do that or cop out with just a GPA goal for senior year. As my turn came to share, I remembered what room I was in. This was not my high school where I might have been judged. I was in the Caymans with a group of people just like me, where we are put together to support one another through battles like the one I was having. And so, I did it. When Roger got to my name on the giant pad, I said I wanted to lose weight. We settled on five pounds by the end of the year and I kept a picture of that goal on my phone for when I got home.
Fast forward to October of that year, I had still not started to try and make the changes necessary for me to lose weight. While I cannot remember the exact day, I do recall the moments that forever changed my life. Every day, I wore my Stay-Focused bracelet as a reminder of the trip. While frustrated with not doing anything to help myself, I remembered the goal I had set to lose weight by the end of the year. How could I not take full advantage of the opportunity I had experienced? From that moment on, I knew I had everything in me to work through the struggles. Each day I weighed myself, and I kept the goal I had set in the back of my head. Stay-Focused provided me with the courage to start tackling my greatest struggle, and tackle it I did.
As the end of the year started to crawl near, I was seeing great progress. Thanks to plenty of salads and the classic rice, chicken, and broccoli (thanks mom), I had hit my five-pound goal by mid-November. Liking the direction I was headed in, I decided to continue getting in shape and see where I would be by the end of the year. December 31st came after continued weeks of dieting and I managed to lose another five pounds. I had finally gained control of my weight and felt better than ever. By the time my reunion trip came around the following summer, I was able to steadily maintain my weight. While I did not make it a big deal while I was in Cayman the second time, Stay-Focused was the reason I was able to improve my life in such an important way. Without the sense of community and support provided by my experience in Cayman, there is no telling what my life would look like today.
Three years later, odds are you will find me in a gym somewhere or evaluating everything I need to eat to properly fuel my training. The motivated person you see today was fostered by the opportunities this organization provide me. Whenever I am looking to get back on track, I simply remember these experiences, as I look to “stay focused” on what lies ahead.
The inspiration that fueled Stay-Focused started with my brother, Bobby
Bobby, a Marine Corps veteran who uses a wheelchair, sustained an injury in combat at the age of 22, while in Vietnam. In 1998, Bobby took a trip to Jamaica where he learned to dive. That motivated me to follow suit, so the following March I planned my own dive trip to Grand Cayman, as I wanted to be able to enjoy the sport with him. Oddly enough, neither of us had ever considered learning to dive, so it was quite unexpected we both got certified in diving in our 50s.
The name of the organization preceded the trip itself. While working as Director of Career Management at Kellogg, the MBA program at Northwestern University (1991-95), Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls at the time) was all the rage. I recall an interview in which he attributed part of his success to his ability to ‘stay focused’ and avoid distraction. At about the same time, my mother, who knew nothing about golf told me she needed to end a phone conversation because Tiger Woods had just appeared on TV. Later, when I called her back and inquired about her sudden interest in golf, she explained she was intrigued by Tiger’s ability to ‘stay focused’… to get into the ‘zone.’ From that point on, the notion of ‘staying focused’ resonated with me.
Roger Muller with Dean Donald Jacobs at a Kellogg graduation during his tenure as Director of Career Management
Following Kellogg, I held a position with Booz-Allen Hamilton as the firm’s Director of Career Management, where I began to think more seriously about my own career. While conducting a workshop on career management for MBA students at The Wharton School, it became abundantly clear I wanted to start a nonprofit organization. I realized the appeal of social entrepreneurship aligned perfectly with my natural preferences and that my calling entailed working with young people. While I had no idea what the organization would be, I knew the name would be Stay-Focused.
The direction in which I initially thought we were headed had European roots. I have dual nationality with Switzerland and have always enjoyed my time there … especially the year I spent working as a waiter in a Swiss ski resort following graduate school. Prior to diving with Bobby, had anyone asked me what I thought the organization would be, I most likely would have described how cool it would be to lead hiking trips in the Swiss Alps for high school students interested in learning French, German, or Italian. I still think it would have been a great way for my career to evolve – stunning mountain scenery, the smell of cheese fondue permeating the air … but the idea solidified itself entirely as a result of my dive trip with Bobby.
Bobby Muller (l) alongside Roger
Everything changed when I witnessed Bobby enjoying the warm Caribbean water. As a sport so few enjoy, diving became a way to celebrate a different, yet perfectly able life. I recall the moment clearly, when we were on the dive boat following our first dive together. Bobby was relaxing in the Cayman sun, headset on, listening to Springsteen. My decision became as crystal clear as the water we were diving in: Stay-Focused would enable teens with physical disabilities to enjoy this moment … the exact same moment that was bringing so much joy to my brother.
When it became clear to me what Stay-Focused would be, I knew I could leverage my background in academia and consulting to make the organization more than just a diving program. While using SCUBA as the vehicle,Stay-Focused could evolve into a leadership development program, complete with workshops and opportunities for personal growth. Having now run programs for 16 years, much of what I hoped the organization could be has become reality. We have certified in diving 133 teens and young adults with disabilities and created a well-developed mentorship program to continue to foster and develop leadership skills in young adults.
Our participants leave Cayman bragging about a lot of things, but three outcomes have remained consistent over the years: greater self-confidence; feeling inspired; and, motivated to set higher goals.
Stay-Focused Reunion Program, Cayman 2018
What has always set Stay-Focused apart is our commitment to providing participants a life-changing experience and our investment in their personal development. Many of our divers have never traveled independently or needed a passport before embarking on their Cayman experience. Most have not spent a week in a hotel without a parent or guardian. These elements alone are life-changing, especially for participants between the ages of 13 and 17. Having the opportunity to experience independence and build the confidence necessary to make the trip alone resonates with our participants for life. We are also unique in offering our participants two, week-long trips to Cayman. The first to get certified in diving and master the required skills; the second, a reunion program one year later, to refresh their skills and focus on team-building activities. As PADI certified SCUBA Divers, our alumni can take their certification with them and dive anywhere in the world accompanied by an instructor. This certification is a rarity for most teens and adults … talk about bragging rights!
Roger Muller flying the Stay-Focused flag over the USS Kittiwake off Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman
Running a small nonprofit has indeed been challenging, but it has satisfied my desire to engage in meaningful work, which, for me, was the key takeaway from that memorable workshop at Wharton. It took more than two years from the time of that trip to Cayman with Bobby to incorporate Stay-Focused, which I accomplished at the age of 54. My goal was to create a unique organization that would enhance the quality of life for teens with disabilities and allow me to stay involved well into my retirement years. Now in my Stay-Focused Reunion Program, Cayman, 2018 early 70s, the only place I am headed in my retirement is back into the Cayman waters with our next group of divers.