Photo by Sue Suchyta
Giovanni Need (second from left), 13, of Melvindale and physical education teacher Chris Olsen (right) congratulate walk-a-thon participant Jesse Allen (left) for raising $190, the highest pledge earner. Allen raised $190 for the American Stroke Association through walk-a-thon pledges.
By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
MELVINDALE – Strong Middle School students hit their stride June 2, raising $4,000 for the American Stroke Association with a walk-a-thon honoring coach Chris Olsen’s late father and stroke victim, David Olsen.
Olsen said this is the fourth annual walk-a-thon fundraiser at Strong. The first and second walks benefited tornado relief and cancer charities, respectively. Then, when Olsen’s father died from stroke complications a year ago, the school dedicated its walk-a-thon to his memory, donating proceeds to the American Heart Association and the ASA.
“Last year was really the year we kind of blew the doors off of it and we ended up raising over five grand,” Olsen said. “This year we came close to that total. Each year it gets a little bit better, a little bit more organized, and they do a phenomenal job raising money.”
This year 330 students, 45 percent of the student body, took place in the walk-a-thon by generating at least $5 each in pledges.
Students held their walk-a-thon at the nearby Melvindale High School track, where participants walked for a half hour before returning to school for refreshments and a field day reward.
Eighth-grader Jesse Allen, 14, of Melvindale generated the most pledges, $190, which he attributes to his mother’s coworkers at Oakwood Hospital – Wayne. He said his sympathy for Olsen’s loss encouraged him to participate fully.
“We’ve been like buddies since sixth grade, and I really felt for him last year after his dad passed away,” Allen said. “Raising the money and walking tells me that somebody in the future could possibly find a thing to help or cure heart diseases, and I know that helps a lot, so I keep pushing on to support.”
Olsen said nine other students earned more than $50 in pledges, earning free “Rock the Beat” T-shirts from the AHA, and all participants received red AHA wristbands.
Olsen said some staff members joined the walk-a-thon because they knew his late father, and because they were encouraged by student pledge participation despite financial hardships.
“We have a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch, so for them to go out and find this money to donate says a lot about them and their character,” Olsen said.
Olsen said counselor Laura Dolinski helped organize the event, and teachers Laudine Smith, Jennifer Dimilia, David Wilkie, Melissa McLaughlin and Mike Hill participated. His mother helped with this year’s walk-a-thon, and last year his brother and an aunt volunteered.
A grant focusing on healthy eating and exercise kick-started the school’s first walk-a-thon, Olsen said. When they shifted their focus to heart health and stroke awareness during the third walk-a-thon, they decided to teach students how to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.
The ASA uses the FAST mnemonic to recognize stroke symptoms: facial drooping, arm weakness and speech difficulty mean it is time to call 911.
“Stroke is kind of a gray area,” Olsen said. “There is not a lot of information, especially for students of their age level.”
Allen said he frequently visits older relatives, and he feels it is important for him to be able to recognize stroke symptoms.
Sixth-grader Alana Bell, 12, of Allen Park, said she got involved in the walk-a-thon because seven people in her family have died from heart disease, including a 7-year-old cousin who died when she was six.
She said she participated in “Jump Rope for Heart” events sponsored by the AHA when she was in grade school in Las Vegas. She encouraged friends to join her in the walk-a-thon to help raise funds for AHA and ASA.
“If more happens, less people die, and we lose less of our family members,” Bell said.
Also walking to honor a relative who died of heart disease was sixth-grader Vanessa Aldana, 11, of Melvindale whose grandfather died of heart disease two years ago. She said he meant a lot to her, and he was on her mind as she took part in the walk.
Sixth-grader Dennis Warnecke, 13, of Taylor, said his grandfather, who died last month of heart disease, was on his mind and in his heart while he was in the walk-a-thon.
He said it is important for teens to learn about heart disease and about how fast it can happen. He said the walk-a-thon is important because it helps others in the community.
Wilkie said he participated in all four walk-a-thons. During the last two, he thought of his mother, who was 68 when she died of heart disease.
He feels it is important for middle school students, who often worry about their own insecurities, to become involved in a cause that helps others.
“In our first hour all the teachers really tried to promote (that) this is for somebody else, this is for other people in your lives,” Wilkie said. “And I think it’s a really good thing that Chris does every year.”
He said he hopes they continue the walk-a-thon annually.
“I hope that we keep this going at Strong,” Wilkie said. “Every year we are raising thousands of dollars, and we are not a community where we have a lot of affluent kids. I think it is great that they are going outside and they are raising money for other people. And I think that is just a testament to Strong Middle School and what we are about here.”
Olsen said the AHA said middle schools usually raise about $1,500 with a walk-a-thon, and he is proud that his students have exceeded that amount two years in a row.
“It’s a special place to work because of the type of students that we have,” Olsen said.
Principal Donald Fish agrees that the students always put in a lot of effort.
“They are very kind and I am very proud of them,” Fish said. “Mr. Olsen is a leader and they follow him wherever he wants them to go.”
“When you lose somebody you feel helpless,” Olsen said. “There is nothing you can do to bring them back, but in a way, doing something like this kind of gets us up off the mat and gets us involved – gives us an opportunity to say we did something, that we made a difference, that we got off the sideline and helped someone.
“Even though it is not going to bring my dad back, it feels good to spread the word, to be a part of it. And I know he would be proud of our efforts to organize it and their efforts to raise the money and get involved in it.”