The serpentine fitness track at BREC’s Highland Road Community Park was a mass of colorful, moving humanity, as more than 3,000 people of all ages participated in the St. Jude “Give Thanks Walk” on Saturday morning.
The event, one of more than 60 held around the nation Saturday to benefit the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in Memphis, Tennessee, was more than twice as large as last year, according to event organizers, who say it will raise more than twice as much money.
“Going into it, we had more than 2,700 people registered and hundreds more registered this morning — it’s quite overwhelming,” said Katie Casanova, regional event specialist at St. Jude Baton Rouge Affiliate Clinic. She estimated the crowd at about 3,500, because “the walking path is two-thirds of a mile, and it’s covered with people.”
Casanova’s emotions welled up as a constant stream of walkers passed by, many wearing colorful T-shirts displaying their team names and carrying and wearing signs declaring “I give thanks for …” the names of those they were walking in support of. “It’s really overwhelming,” she said.
Casanova said organizers had originally set a fundraising goal of $400,000 for the event, but she now thinks there is a good chance of raising $450,000 based on the size of the crowd. That compares to just over $200,000 raised last year.
Cindy Peno, a St. Jude board member and mother of a child who was treated at St. Jude before succumbing to her illness, was directing the hundreds of volunteers.
“There is no way we could do this without them,” Peno said.
Many of the volunteers, who did everything from picking up trash to helping folks fill out forms and serving snacks and jambalaya, were from area high schools.
Peno said she lost her daughter, Jill, at the age of 14 about 20 years ago.
“If we’d stayed in Baton Rouge at that time, they gave her six weeks, and her treatment at St. Jude gave her nine more months,” Peno said. “That gave us more time with her, and I can’t not help.”
Kenneth Lott, his wife, Lauren Evey, and his son, Garrett Lott, 15, of Walker, were walking to celebrate Garrett’s full recovery from a brain tumor discovered when he was an infant.
“He was diagnosed in remission on Sept. 11, 2001 — yeah, the day of the bombing — and he’s been cancer free almost 15 years,” Kenneth Lott said.
“We’re doing this to help keep people alive,” Garrett said. “We do this every year. I feel good.”
A large crowd of many teams from Dutchtown were walking in support of Breanna Bercegeay, who attended Dutchtown Middle School and succumbed to her illness two months ago.
Steve Barrow and his daughter, Lydia, 10, were walking for her and also in support for a boy named Reed who “has cancer in his eye,” Lydia said. Her friend Reed attends their church and is being treated at St. Jude hospital.
Walking next to the Barrows was Ron Stott, of Baker, great-grandfather to Breanna, who was a cheerleader at Dutchtown Middle School, he said.
“I’m tellin’ ya — this is amazing,” Stott said about all the people wearing T-shirts and signs declaring their efforts for Breanna. “It’s unbelievable — she even had followers overseas” on her Facebook page.
Nearby was “Team Annabelle” walking for Annabelle Wood, 6, of Dutchtown, another leukemia survivor, said her mother, Sharon Wood.
“She was diagnosed in June 2011 and went through over two years of chemo treatment,” Wood said. “We are celebrating her end of treatment, and her leukemia is in remission for three years.”
Quiana Green’s daughter, Julia, is a classmate of Annabelle’s at Dutchtown Primary, and they walked along with Annabelle and many members from the school.
“It’s beautiful to see so many people here supporting St. Jude,” Green said. “You never want to think about your child going through something you can’t control, and this is something parents can fall back on — they’ll be there for you.”
Penny Borne was carrying a large sign declaring “Thanks for Bradley” Hamilton, one of the youths featured in the event and supported by over 250 members of his “#Bradley Strong” Team.
Hamilton was playing high school football when his leukemia was discovered after a game injury sent him to the doctor. He was not at the event because he is at St. Jude being treated, team members said.
“This is a wonderful event for a great cause,” Borne said.