News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

In the Pines: Walking for charity

When I was a kid, there was this fundraiser called the Walkathon. You'd take your piece of physical paper-thick stock, printed with lines to fill in and boxes to tick-and proceed to pester neighbors, relatives, and grownups at church and school.

What you wanted from them: a pledge. They'd pledge, say 25¢ for each mile you would walk, filling their name and address on the line provided. You'd plan to walk the whooooole Walkathon. Twenty miles! The money benefited March of Dimes, an organization originally developed to fight polio.

Thousands of people participated. My friend Debbie and I took it seriously. We wanted the thrill of finishing the whole Walkathon, wearing our special numbers, like stars of track and field. We didn't want to drop out in shame, like the wimpy little kids our parents sometimes thought we were.

Best of all: the Walkathon took place in town, a place I rarely got to explore much, certainly not on my own with a friend. Debbie and I got cash in our pockets, too. I remember stopping at Gantsy's Ice Cream near Hayward Field, where my family would go watch the Olympic trials for track, as the town in question was Eugene. I remember feeling independent, buying whatever I wanted.

So you'd walk and get really tired, stopping at stations for bathrooms and water. You'd find it within yourself to keep walking, trudging, moving. Sometimes you'd do it for the pride, to meet the challenge. Other times, you'd think of the poor little babies and their moms, who needed every quarter your pledgers had agreed to pay. You'd walk for them.

Afterward, you'd do the math on your miles and pledge amounts. You'd go back and find each person who'd pledged, and get cash or coins from them. Then your mom or dad or guardian would take the cashola and present you with a paper check, which you'd send to the March of Dimes.

All those face-to-face transactions with adults helped me develop social and math skills, but nowadays it's way easier. You just sign onto a website, send a few emails, and hope for the best. The money rolls in all by itself.

This week I participated in my first walkathon-thingy since back in the proverbial day. It was NAMI Walks, an annual fundraiser for the National Alliance on the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Seeing as how I haven't been in touch with Debbie in decades, I asked my friend Shelley to be my walking partner.

The NAMI Walk encourages people with mental illness and those who support them to raise funds and become visible to their community. The folks walking in Bend get a chance to meet each other, get some exercise, and show off their very corporate-looking NAMI swag. Hopefully they get people talking about mental health.

I looked forward to doing the walk. Less did I look forward to getting up early and driving to Bend, spewing carbon from my ridiculous non-electric old vehicle. So when I found myself dealing with persistent back pain, I decided not to drive. My donors had already paid their pledges, thanks to the Interwebs.

People helped me do the walk my own way. I painted a handmade NAMI Walks sign (refreshingly DIY, or terribly off-brand? Someone at NAMI will have to decide). My friend Shelley joined me on our own private NAMI Walk from Sisters Coffee to Whychus Creek, to the trails and back around FivePine.

As we walked, we talked about mental illness. She asked about bipolar, a.k.a. manic depressive illness, the mood disorder I've lived with since my teens. I answered as honestly as I could.

One reason our national mental health crisis has reached such terrifying proportions: conditions like bipolar still carry enormous stigma. It's up to those of us who are functional (ish?) in society to be open, to push past the stigma and share our experience.

Back at Sisters Coffee, a NAMI volunteer in full regalia was kind enough to meet with me. I found it heartening that NAMI leaders in Central Oregon would encourage a lone walker in our small town.

As a kid, the Walkathon taught me to care about others, distant babies with vague problems I didn't understand, and raise funds to help them. Little did I know that someday I'd be walking for people like me.

I did not, unfortunately, obtain Gantsy's ice cream on my journey. A decaf mocha made for a fine replacement. I toast you all with my mocha.

Here's to walking, and to the privilege of being able to walk. Here's to NAMI. Here's to all who face mental illness in your own lives and among those you love-or who just live and work with mentally ill people, like it or not. May we all get through this stronger, healthier, and with more honesty.


Reader Comments(1)

nica writes:

Honesty about who we are is key. It helps others understand they are not alone in whatever mental struggles they are having. Brava for walking in your own way to raise money for NAMI, but also you raise awareness of the fact that everyday, productive, and good people -- like yourself! -- in the community have mental illness. There's no shame. Here we are!