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On boats and balconies, Huntington Harbour rallies around teen with cancer

Seventeen years is not enough. But recent high school graduate Addison Conley plans to savor whatever time she has left.

That philosophy brought the Eastvale girl from 50 miles inland to Huntington Harbour on July 15, a breezy Friday evening. For two hours, Addi waved from a boat at hundreds of strangers greeting her with signs and balloons.

In June 2021, Addi was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, known as AML. Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant did not quell the viciously aggressive disease. And in mid-March, doctors delivered devastating news: The effervescent and ever-smiling girl had, at most, a few months left to live.

“We will never stop believing in miracles for our little miracle,” said mom Staci Conley.

With long hospital stays for drastic medical treatments now behind her, Addi began a bucket list.

For starters, she had always dreamed of a big wedding, complete with a white gown, rings, bridesmaids, and a fancy cake. She managed to check that box — even though the whimsical “I dos” exchanged with her boyfriend did not involve an actual marriage license.

“I wanted to marry at 23 and have kids at 25,” Addi said.

Her adoring supporters made sure she accomplished other things her heart desired: a ride in a hot air balloon, zip lining, and a trip to Las Vegas.

Addi also wanted to go on an ocean cruise. Given the unpredictability of her health, however, that goal was not feasible.

But family friend Tonja Bambrook, who docks her electric boat in Huntington Harbour, struck an idea. If a Royal Caribbean extravaganza was out of the question, how about a Duffy sunset cruise?

Bambrook took to social media to advertise the event, urging neighbors to welcome Addi to their watery front yards.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol offered to escort. Ocean View School District lit up a digital sign. A family the Conleys had never even met volunteered their Duffy electric boat for the fete’s overflow.

And, on a beautiful summer afternoon, it all came together with Addi and her entourage of pals and siblings gathering at a boat slip. Addi’s chariot awaited, festooned in yellow and blue balloons, sunflower garlands, and signs reading “#teamaddi” — the hashtag her parents use on social media to promote cancer awareness.

Addi’s boyfriend Sebastian Snitily, whom she calls her husband, pushed her wheelchair down the ramp and helped her onto the boat. There, she found a pretty arrangement of fruit — about the only thing that tastes good to her right now.

“This is so nice of everyone,” Addi said. “It’s wonderful.”

And the wonders were just beginning.

On bridges and boats and houses, in every nook and cranny of the 680-acre harbor, strangers waved handmade signs pledging support. Poster boards included messages such as “You Are Loved,” “Prayers for Addi,” and “Cancer Sucks.”

Some gathered in large groups, children among them. Others appeared solo, seemingly impromptu, with words of encouragement scrawled on scraps of cardboard. Banners hung from balconies. Half a dozen flitting young dancers opened their arms to display butterfly wings. People scurried down their wharves to give Addi floral bouquets.

“What’s the parade for?” Irene Nortier asked passengers on the Harbor Patrol boat, as she observed from Huntington Harbor Boat Rentals, her sporting equipment rental shop.

When she learned in one brief sentence that the fleet honored a teen with cancer, Nortier ducked inside and returned with a business card.

“Tell Addi’s family they can take a Duffy out free of charge, whenever they want,” she said.

The experience felt something like Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” attraction, a magical ride with surprises at every turn.

“Seeing everyone come together — people in Huntington who don’t even know Addi personally — restores my faith in humanity,” said Addi’s close friend, Emma DeNota. “Addi goes through a lot of pain, but she still likes to get out and do stuff. She wants to have things to look forward to.”

When in May 2021, Addi developed a rash and started feeling lethargic, a doctor attributed her symptoms to “COVID-related depression,” Staci Conley said. After all, her outgoing daughter — the youngest of eight, including adopted children — was “stuck at home” for most of her junior year.

But within a few weeks, lab tests revealed something much worse than malaise.

Addi would spend her senior year distance-learning from hospital rooms, where friends could not even visit. Staci Conley and her husband, Chris, arranged for Addi’s very own prom, at the beach, and a private graduation ceremony.

Along the way, the Conleys have learned too much about what families facing cancer endure. Now they’re determined to be part of the solution.

Chris and Staci Conley complain that treatments for AML have not improved in decades. They argue that cancer research is underfunded. They say medical bills could drive almost any family into bankruptcy. They assert that hospitals operate in a vacuum.

When the parents were seeking second opinions, Chris Conley said, “Hospitals would not share information with each other.”

“The system is broken,” he maintained.

Nevertheless, Friday in Huntington Harbour provided a respite from those worries, especially for the guest of honor.

“It was really cool,” Addi said afterward, tired but content.

Her family says she’s the one who keeps them strong, not vice versa. In moments of sorrow, Addi reminds her loved ones: “I’ve had a beautiful life.”

“Addi sets an example for all of us,” said her 19-year-old brother, Joshua Berry. “She always tells me, ‘Don’t let a day go by without doing something you enjoy.’”

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