Making strides for charity

Fund-raiser: Two Howard teens' determination to help a teacher with Crohn's disease culminates in a successful walk.

October 27, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With all the smiling faces that brightened up yesterday's gray skies, it seemed more like a family gathering than a 2.4-mile walk to benefit the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America.

But as the more than 400 men, women and children crossed the finish line at Centennial Park, there were no self-congratulations. Their admiration and applause clearly were directed toward the event's organizers: a pair of soft-spoken 14-year-old girls from Ellicott City determined to help a favorite teacher who suffers from Crohn's disease.

Carrie Gartner and Shayna Meliker, freshmen at Centennial High, decided to organize the Miles for Miracles Pace Setter Walk 18 months ago after their Judaic studies teacher at Columbia's Beth Shalom Synagogue, Chaya Solomon-Hoffman, was hospitalized.

The walk raised at least $55,000 - far more than expected - including $30,000 from corporate sponsorships. More pledge money is expected.

"Wow! What else can I say but wow!" Carrie said. "Everyone in the community has been so helpful."

In addition to walkers, the event drew more than 33 adult and 14 teen volunteers. "I think it's great that everybody came out to support us," Shayna said.

In August, the girls organized a kickoff event at Donna's Restaurant in Clarksville for the 30 corporate sponsors who contributed cash, in-kind donations or prizes for the walk. Comcast Cable ran 30-second commercials featuring Shayna and Carrie announcing the event.

"We've been totally overwhelmed at the business community stepping up to support the girls and to raise money for the foundation," said Shayna's father, Ron Meliker, whose identification sticker read: "Proud Dad."

Just before the walk, the organizers dedicated the event to Carrie's uncle, Melvin Oberfeld, who has Crohn's disease, and to Solomon-Hoffman. The teacher thanked the girls for "making teaching rewarding" and for their efforts.

"A lot of our role models are recognized for their flamboyance," said Solomon-Hoffman, 25. "These two girls are recognized for their natural modesty for being role models."

A teacher at Beth Shalom for four years, Solomon-Hoffman's Crohn's disease was diagnosed in 1995. "Occasionally a flare-up requires a couple of weeks in the hospital," she said. "The girls were really concerned. By that time, I had been teaching them three years and we became close. They are so kind and sincere, and people appreciate that pure sincerity."

Collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis have no cure. Approximately 1 million Americans live with the chronic condition.

"It is very debilitating," said Richard Hays, executive director of the Maryland/Southern Delaware Chapter of Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America, who worked on the event.

This was the chapter's first walk in Columbia. "Obviously, it's an overwhelming turnout," Hays said.

Before the 9:30 a.m. trek, participants milled about over tables of bagels, pastries, coffee and fruit donated by sponsors. Later they did high kicks and arm stretches during a warm-up session led by an aerobics instructor.

Guy Guzonne, chairman of the Howard County Council, read several proclamations, including one issued by the council that proclaimed yesterday "Miles for Miracles Day."

Former Orioles third baseman and Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, whom the girls enlisted as ceremonial ribbon cutter, also spoke. "I have several friends with Crohn's," he said. "I'm happy to be here today and be part of it."

Participants walked or ran for 90 minutes past the colorful autumn trees surrounding the lake. Many pushed baby strollers; some brought dogs.

Stacey Stein of Ellicott City was among the first to cross the finish line. She ran the route in 40 minutes with her 11-year-old daughter, Nicole. "We often do charity runs," said Stein, a personal fitness trainer. "My sister has colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome runs in my family."

Michele Zurad walked with two other math teachers and two staffers from Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City. "I was so impressed with the two girls that I taught in sixth grade and the way they put it together," Zurad said. "This is [community] service learning at its best."

But it wasn't a walk in the park for everyone.

Alan Berman of Ellicott City strolled with his wife, Sherry, and two young daughters. "It was very hard but worthwhile," he said. "I suffer from Crohn's. I want to make it a little easier for people going through what I went through."

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