Hundreds run in Davenport to help kids with cancer

By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

DAVENPORT -- Mary Mendenhall-Core was a single parent when her daughter, at age 16, was diagnosed with leukemia 18 years ago. The Des Moines woman wishes there had been a program like Pinky Swear, of which she's now regional director, back then.

"I know what these families go through. When your life is turned upside down, and all these bills come in, what I say is: If we can keep these families financially strong, that's a great investment in our community," Ms. Mendenhall-Core said Sunday of the Pinky Swear 5K and Fun Run at Centennial Park.

"People can plan for weddings, for college and for retirement. But you can't plan for the news that your child has cancer," she said, noting she dipped into her children's college fund to cover her family's expenses. Ms. Mendenhall-Core has worked for Pinky Swear, which sponsors six other similar events in the Midwest, for a year.

Pinky Swear raises money for basic needs -- such as hosing, transportation, utilities, gas and food -- and provides emotional support to families dealing with childhood cancer across the U.S.

It was founded in honor of Mitch Chepokas, who lost his battle to bone cancer in 2003. In December 2002, 9-year-old Mitch overheard his pediatric oncology ward neighbors worrying about money for Christmas gifts, and he decided to give away his savings to other kids fighting cancer, according to pinkyswear.org.

He asked his dad if they could do it again the following year, but his dad had to tell Mitch the truth: With his terminal prognosis, he wouldn’t be around the following Christmas. That’s when Mitch made his dad "pinky-swear promise" to continue to help families with kids with cancer after he was gone, the website says.

To date, $13 million has been raised to support kids battling cancer in 46 states through triathlons and runs in Minnesota, Kansas City, Des Moines, Omaha and the Quad-Cities. All are sponsored by Hy-Vee.

In the Quad-Cities, Pinky Swear sponsored a triathlon for the past two years at the Bettendorf YMCA. Sunday marked the first 5K and one-mile Fun Run at Centennial Park, Ms. Mendenhall-Core said.

"We wanted to get more people involved. It helps with awareness and fundraising," she said, noting 500 people participated in Sunday's runs and fitness festival, which featured kids' activities, healthy snacks, recipes and fitness information. "We're very happy with the turnout."

"It was fantastic. We feel so blessed," said Erica Campbell, Pinky Swear executive director. "We have such a great partner with Hy-Vee, who really helped promote the event and shares our mission."

Sunday's vendors included Hy-Vee KidsFit, the Y, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and a yoga studio. "Fitness is very important to us, and community support," Ms. Campbell said, noting the event has raised $87,000, and people still can donate online.

"My favorite part was seeing kids racing toward the finish line. The focus and determination on their face; it's just really neat," she said. "We're teaching kids about empathy, leadership and helping each other. We're also trying to raise strong youth in our community."

Ms. Campbell joined Pinky Swear two months ago. She had been a camp counselor in Virginia for kids with cancer, as well as serving 15 years on the board of Special Love Inc., which supports families affected by cancer.

"I've always had an empathy for others less fortunate. I also lost my mother to breast cancer in my 20s. It's important that I continue that legacy," she said.

"When a family is hit with cancer, a lot of times, a family member has to quit their job, or they can't work as many hours. There are medical bills uncovered by insurance," Ms. Campbell said. "The financial burden becomes such a stress on a family. We're trying to keep them out of bankruptcy and keep the family together."

Pinky Swear tries to keep proceeds in the local area, to help area families, by working with hospital social workers, she added.

Kelsi Connell, of Rock Island, who works for Hy-Vee as a product specialist at the Davenport West Locust store, was among Sunday's runners, along with her boyfriend and his three sons.

"It seems like a really good organization," she said of Pinky Swear. "Most organizations help with research and stuff, and this goes to the actual families, and it's such a big expense for them."

"It's a fun event," said Dale Manley, of Moline, race director for Cornbelt Running Club. Pinky Swear is a noncompetitive run, and he said he'll help market it in future years among club members. "It's a good cause."

"We stress being involved with our community, just being active," said Makenzie Reed, assistant coordinator for Hy-Vee KidsFit, which provides a free online personal trainer and a health and fitness program for kids ages 7 to 17 at hy-veekidsfit.com.

The 2-year-old KidsFit program offers a challenge every day for five weeks. "It keeps kids active at home with their family," Ms. Reed said, noting it works with Hy-Vee dietitians on nutrition tips, and promotes healthy habits.

"Fitness is one aspect, and nutrition is another one that goes hand in hand," she said, adding Pinky Swear events offer that.

Ms. Campbell and Ms. Reed would like to see Hy-Vee sponsor more Pinky Swear benefits wherever Hy-Vee has locations. The grocery-store chain currently has 240-plus stores in eight Midwestern states.

Source: The Dispatch Argus / qconline.com