Spouses walk to save lives

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Foster
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs
Where there is a will, there is a way, and when it comes to the Hanscom community pulling together for a great cause, there is no doubt the will is there.

A group of Hanscom spouses, who call themselves "The Real Housewives of Hanscom," joined together to walk 26.2 miles to raise money for cancer research during the Jimmy Fund Walk Sept. 9.

According to www.jimmyfund.org, since its founding in 1948, the Jimmy Fund has supported the fight against cancer in children and adults at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, helping to raise the chances of survival for cancer patients around the world.

The team leader, Heather Potter, explained that she walked last year and found it to be so inspirational, there was no way she could not participate again.

"Everybody has been affected by cancer in one way or another and walking last year changed my life," she said. "I wanted to walk again, so I opened it up to the spouses and eight other women signed up."

The creation of the team didn't end there, however. When a new family moved into the neighborhood, it became a little more personal for everyone.

Brittany Albert and her family moved from Newport, R.I., during the summer. Earlier in the year, Albert's four-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, was diagnosed with a low grade brain tumor.

"We noticed my daughter walking funny and then she started losing strength in her arm," said Albert. "My neighbor encouraged us to take her in for an MRI, so we did and found out she had a low grade brain tumor on her brain stem."

Mackenzie had surgery in June to remove most of the tumor and then spent a week in July relaxing with family at Camp Sunshine in Maine.

According to their website, www.campsunshine.org, the camp is a place that provides respite, support, joy and hope to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families, and that is where Albert met the team leader of Team H.E.A.L.S.

Team H.E.A.L.S., which stands for Hope, Endure, Awareness, Love our children and Support pediatric low grade astrocytomas, was started by a group of families with children that have pediatric low grade brain tumors. The team's hope was to raise more than $10,000 because only then would they be able to designate where the money would go within the Dana Farber cancer institute.

Albert asked Potter if her team would be willing to join Team H.E.A.L.S. to ensure their monetary goal would be reached, and after double checking with the rest of her team, Potter enthusiastically agreed.

So with the newly merged teams, each member began an individual or group training program to prepare for the September event that included more than 7,500 walkers, according to www.jimmyfund.org.

"We started in the spring and, in my opinion, training to walk is harder than running. With families it can be hard to find the time to walk a great distance," said Potter. "We would take the kids to play and would walk around Castle Park for two hours. It would get quite boring but we would just keep going."

Some of the participants were surprised by how difficult walking that kind of distance could be.

"I didn't do much training at first because I figured I'm at the gym four to five days a week. I'm a runner," said Rebecca Alonso, a real housewives team member. "Then we did a 20 mile walk from Hanscom to Alewife about a month ago and I realized how different walking is from running. The muscles are different and it takes twice as long to finish. I'm just glad for that big wake up call. I was definitely walking quite a few miles to prepare after that, since I knew I wasn't ready for it."

Although each member initially joined the team for different reasons, they were all eager to come together to fight for the same cause.

Team member Michal Lansing Holl explained the personal reasons why she got involved.

"I have family that's been affected by cancer and I think to myself, 'If money hadn't been there to support the facilities and the hospitals couldn't afford to do the treatments, where would my dad be? Where would my grandma be?'" she said. "There's a possibility down the road that I may have to go through the same thing...so it is very personal."

Fellow team member Michele Gish used the experience of training and fundraising to teach her children about being there to help others.

"I think it's a great way to teach and show them what other people are affected with and how lucky we really are," she said. "They saw what we did with the fundraising and it was great for them to see the whole process and see us follow through to the finish."

Because the team was not a professional organization, they had a difficult time fundraising on base, but it did not take long for the community to come together in support.

"We sent a letter to the housing office and they immediately responded and wanted to donate," Potter said. "We also sent a letter to the Hanscom Spouses Club and they sent back double what we had requested. Once we put it on Facebook and everyone knew of the team, so many people were willing to support us."

Of course, fundraising was only the beginning; the group still had to accomplish the 26.2 mile Jimmy Fund Walk.

The day started at 4:30 a.m. when the women headed to Hopkinton, Mass., to begin their journey.
They described the day as emotional and inspiring.

"When you cross under a sign that says 'strength' and 'determination,' you think, yeah, we have strength and determination," said Potter. "But as you keep walking, you realize it's not about us, it's about these kids with cancer that have strength and determination."

The women agreed that with the way the route was planned, it was hard to forget exactly why they were walking. Each mile marker showed a picture of a child with cancer and had their name, age and dreams and aspirations listed.

"We're ready to just fall over, our limbs want to shut down and we see this little girl who has dreams of being a mommy," Holl said. "Her name was Phoebe, she was five and wanted to grow up, be a mommy with three little girls. We all thought, how can we not keep going for Phoebe?"

The team members pushed each other on through the miles and used the signs of the sick children, as well as each other, for motivation.

One of Alonso's biggest motivators was Holl, who would remind the team why they were doing the walk at each mile marker.

"Every time we passed one of those mile markers, she would tell the whole group the name of the person on the marker and say, 'Alright, we're walking for this person or that person. If you think we're in pain now, just imagine all the poking and pricking and prying that their little bodies go through. This is nothing.'" Alonso said.

The team also bonded throughout the emotional and exhausting experience.

"I feel the emotion that went into that walk; the heartbreak of seeing the kids fighting for their lives and the pain and anguish that our bodies felt walking, knowing these kids would do anything to have only that type of pain," said Potter. "I'll never forget that moment. I feel connected to these women and I think I always will. Being with this group and walking it together was incredible."

The volunteers and support from the community, friends and family was also high on the list of reasons why the team was successful in completing the grueling walk.

"We're a small community, you have your family and you have your military family. You do what you can for your family. What affects one, affects us all," said Potter. "Everyone has a story and it's important for everyone's story to be heard for change to happen."

Team H.E.A.L.S., along with the Real Housewives of Hanscom, have raised more than $24,000 so far. The team plans on walking next year and hopes participation will grow. If interested in joining the team for next year's Walk, contact Heather Potter at heatherlpotter@yahoo.com.

For more information on the walk that has raised more than $80 million since 1989, visit www.jimmyfund.org or to see the progress of Team H.E.A.L.S., visit www.jimmyfundwalk.org/2012/teamheals. Donations are being accepted until Nov. 1.