Two girls walk the walk for a beloved teacher

NEIGHBORS

February 03, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHEN Shayna Meliker and Carrie Gartner learned that their Hebrew teacher suffered from Crohn's disease, they decided to organize a walkathon to help find a cure.

Shayna and Carrie, both eighth-graders at Burleigh Manor Middle School, have known teacher Chaya Solomon of Baltimore for about two years. Last May, they learned from another teacher at Beth Shalom in Columbia that Solomon was in the hospital, fighting a flare-up of Crohn's disease.

"We were a little freaked out" because we didn't know anything about it, Shayna recalled. But they did some research and learned there is no cure for Crohn's disease, which can cause debilitating stomach pain that often requires special diets and even surgery.

The girls contacted Richard Hays, executive director of the Maryland and Southern Delaware chapter of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, saying they wanted to organize a walkathon in support of their teacher.

"I was completely blown away," Hays said. "They wanted to do something to help, and they had seen other people do walks and fund-raisers and so they wanted to do this."

Then they called their teacher and told her their plan. They didn't ask if it was OK; they just told her it was what they were going to do, Solomon said.

Her reaction? "I was ecstatic," she said. "I was touched. I thought I was going to cry. I didn't know how to react. It was just really, extremely touching. Maybe like a card would be nice, a phone call is nice, but to say we're going to do something and go out there and change the world is amazing."

Hays and his organization, which recently moved to Columbia from Towson, immediately set to work helping the girls turn their idea into reality.

"There was a lot of strategizing that went into this initially," Hays said.

They had to make sure Solomon was comfortable with the idea and that Carrie and Shayna could count on the support of their families. Then there was choosing the location and date. They scheduled the 5K walk for Oct. 26 at Centennial Park, and began the tough jobs of finding sponsors and working out logistics.

"It's a huge commitment for these girls," Hays said. "They were the ones who started the entire walk."

They have created brochures and written letters, he said. "They have approached this with an incredible sense of not only philanthropy but also an incredible sense of business acumen. They very much understand what it means for a corporation to be a sponsor."

Committees of friends, family and foundation members are being formed that will tackle specific aspects of the walk. Both girls said organizing the event is turning out to be more work than they expected.

"I was stuffing letters today for about an hour," Shayna said last week. She estimated that she spends about four hours a week on walkathon activities, and she expects that the time will increase as the event approaches. "Once we have committees, we'll have meetings once or twice a month," she said.

But the girls are happy to do it. "We're, like, really close to Chaya," Carrie said. "We're really good friends."

Solomon, 25, was diagnosed with the disease when she was 16, after losing weight and suffering from stomach pain for about a year. She considers herself lucky that she has never needed surgery, but she has been hospitalized three times with flare-ups of the illness. In addition to teaching Hebrew at Beth Shalom, Solomon is a film student at Towson University and teaches yoga, she said.

She loves working with young people and said the actions of Carrie and Shayna send a powerful message that kids and teens "do have a voice."

Shayna and Carrie hope to attract at least 300 walkers to their event. Money will be raised through a combination of registration fees and corporate sponsors, and will go to the local chapter of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. If the event is a success, the girls hope to repeat it every year.

For more information about Crohn's disease, visit the Web site of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America at www. ccfa.org or call 800-618-5583. To sign up for the walk, contact Shayna at 410-313-8221 or Carrie at 410-418-4030.

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