Thousands in Capital Region using sports to support a cause

Section: Sports,  Page: C8

Date: Sunday, October 19, 2008

There are a lot of reasons to be on your feet in the Capital Region these days.

Today, 13,000 people are expected to take part in the American Cancer Society's walkathon in Albany's Washington Park.

Saturday, the American Heart Association was expected to attract more than 4,000 people to its own walk.

What is it about exercise and charity that brings out the crowds? Whatever the answer, it's working. Walking, biking and running for a cause, both here and throughout the United States, has never been more popular.

In the Capital Region, you can climb stairs for cystic fibrosis or lung disease, bike for diabetes or missing children, hike for lymphoma or run for breast cancer or sexual violence.

Walking trumps them all, though. Since spring, walks attracted tens of thousands of people locally and raised more than $6 million for such causes as multiple sclerosis, an animal shelter, nearly a half-dozen forms of cancer, Alzheimer's, AIDS, heart disease, suicide, dyslexia, diabetes and Down's syndrome, among others.

If a charity sends a letter requesting a donation, it's apt to end up in the garbage as junk mail. But ask people to walk around for a while or ride a bike for a metric century and your cause can net tens of thousands of dollars.

Locally, events can be hugely successful. The American Cancer Society raises around $900,000 with its Making Strides event. The American Heart Association generates around $750,000 a day earlier with its Start! Heart Walk.

And March of Dimes, the granddaddy of all walkathons, generated $730,000 at seven locations in upstate New York, including $191,000 in Albany alone. The group collects money to fight birth defects and premature births.

"Over the past 10, 15 years we've seen a real strong increase in the number of these types of athletic fundraising events," said Michael Nelson, spokesman for the Association of Fundraising Professionals in Arlington, Va.

Curiously, for all the sweat equity involved, such events do not make up a large part of fundraising. Add up money raised from all fundraisers associated with walking, running and biking and you get only 1 or 2 percent of the $300 billion raised last year through philanthropy, he said.

"They don't always raise a ton of money," he said. "And they can be expensive."

But the number of events continues to grow, even while some worry about oversaturation. USA Track & Field, the national governing body for foot racing events, said funding for the nation's largest charity races and walks increased 9 percent in 2006, compared to a year earlier.

But such events also meet a purpose beyond capital.

"It's awareness," Nelson said. "They do a great job. You get to know the cause."

And the benefits are not just for the sponsors.

"It's very much an empowering kind of thing," said Paul McGee, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society in Loudonville. "When you're diagnosed with cancer, often you feel like you're utterly alone. Events show you there are many things you can do to fight back."

Locally, such events are growing. This past year saw a handful of new events, including the Ride 4 Love Charity Bike Ride in Ballston Spa (cause: child prostitution); A Walk in the Park, an event sponsored by The Great Escape and Splashwater Kingdom in Queensbury (cause: children's cancer); and the Ride for Missing Children, where bicyclists rode 100 miles to raise money for that cause.

In 2007, when Michael and Lisa Carey of Bethlehem wanted to hold a fundraiser for the organization they formed in memory of their late son, they decided to hold a walkathon. The event in October 2007 drew 300 people and raised about $20,000 for the Jonathan Carey Foundation. A second event took place earlier this month.

"You get a large group of people out, standing for a specific cause, and it shows you're not fighting the battle alone," Michael Carey said.

The foundation is named for the family's autistic son, who was smothered to death in February 2007 while under the care of two aides from the development center O.D. Heck of Schenectady. One aide was found guilty of manslaughter.

The family formed the group to help pay for programs and advocacy to help orphans and disabled children.

Many who come out for such events take the cause seriously. They canvass their neighborhoods and approach friends and relatives to get donations.

Bill Toscano, 49, of Salem, takes part in several fundraisers a year, most notably a Polar Plunge, where he dives into a lake during the winter for charity. He has friends who have skydived and blogged on the Internet for 24 hours straight in order to raise money for a cause.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh my God, you're going to jump in a lake during the winter,'" said Toscano, a teacher. "You're not just asking for money. You're saying, donate to my worthy cause, and I'll do this."

This year his goal is to raise $5,000 for the Polar Plunge this December on Lake George, which raises money for the Special Olympics. The secret to an enjoyable winter swim, by the way, is to wait until the last minute to take your clothes off and to have hot towels on hand to dry off with, he said. He warms them in his dryer and keeps them warm in a dry beverage cooler.

Paul Fahey, chief operating officer of the Albany marketing company Zone 5, takes part in 12 to 20 fundraiser events a year, mostly foot races.

"At the age of 40 I'm done getting first place in medals and a stage on the podium," he said. "It's just a chance to race and run for something a little bit deeper."

For those with a personal connection to the cause, the meaning can be deeper still. Paula Franchi of West Sand Lake still remembers how she felt when her son Jake was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago.

He was 3 at the time, and was out riding his tricycle when Franchi heard the news over the phone. The doctor told her he had to come inside immediately -- if he fell and cut himself, he could bleed to death due to leukemia-related anemia.

"When you first find out, it's just fear," she recalled. "It's a horrible feeling. It's like nothing I've ever felt before."

Since that moment, she and her family go to all the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society events. Before the diagnosis, they weren't even aware of the walk.

Today, Jake is in remission after three-plus years of chemotherapy, but the family is still involved in the cause.

"When you have someone who's been diagnosed, there's not a lot you can do to help your child," Franchi said. "It's finding a way to feel like you're making a difference."

Alan Wechsler can be reached at 454-5469 or at