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Run brings community together for a great cause

As organizer Joan King said Sunday morning, although the Terry Fox run is an important fundraiser, it’s about more than money.

As organizer Joan King said Sunday morning, although the Terry Fox run is an important fundraiser, it’s about more than money.

To those who gathered in Simcoe Park, it was about community, about sharing stories, sometimes crying together, and drawing on the energy of a crowd of people all inspired by the strength and courage of one man.

After a two-year absence, gathering in person seemed more important, and more appreciated than ever. There were many familiar faces of people who have volunteered or taken part in many runs, and new faces of those who had a reason to come out for the first time, some running for loved ones lost, others who are grateful survivors and were there so others will be as well.

Evabeth Fast is a cancer survivor who rode her bicycle with her family along the Terry Fox route Sunday. She is just 10 years old, a Crossroads student who was diagnosed with a Wilms tumour, rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children, in November 2017. She was five years old and in Kindergartn when she had her left kidney removed at McMaster Children’s Hospital, followed by chemotherapy. Her mother Stephanie says Evabeth has some memories of that time, although she doesn’t remember losing her hair. “She’s terrified of doctors and hospitals,” says Stephanie, “but everyone has been great,” and Evabeth now can just live life.”

Stephanie remembers just months before her little girl’s diagnosis, the family was travelling through Thunder Bay and stopped at the statue of Terry Fox. “It was very emotional,” she says, “super powerful to see it.”

Five years later, she and the family were excited to be in Simcoe Park, although it was an emotional time as well. “We feel very lucky. So many others are not so fortunate.”

Hilda McCann was one of the familiar faces, there to walk on behalf of her daughter Bridie who in 2012, at the age of 36, died from a very aggressive cancer.

A year later, in December 2013, Hilda was diagnosed with breast cancer, at a stage that offers a good recovery rate, and after surgery and chemotherapy, has been able to return to walk in her red shirt, as a survivor. With her for the first time was her husband Pat, also walking for Bridie. Having had a brush with cancer himself just this past March, he has had surgery, was fortunate not to need chemotherapy or radiation, and decided it was time he joined in the walk. “I’m being very positive about this,” he says. “My doctor has turned me loose, and I’m fine. I’m a glass half full kind of guy.”

Carol Dyck, another cancer survivor grateful to wear a red shirt, was a volunteer for the run. The day makes her think of her parents, both of whom died of brain tumours, her father at the age of 52, her mother when she was 68.

Jazz singer Juliet Dunn was also at Simcoe Park, there to sing O Canada before the run started, her presence very much appreciated so soon after the death of her husband, Peter Shea. He had been battling an aggressive form of prostate cancer for almost four years before his death Aug. 21, at the age of 50. The talented drummer, pianist, and vocalist who co-founded the TD Niagara Jazz Festival with Juliet had been having undiagnosed health problems since 2018, and in 2020, a trip to the emergency department led to a CT scan, and he learned he had stage four cancer that had spread to his lungs and liver. Shea went through radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and stayed positive throughout, making many Jazz Festival appearances at the piano, including on Canada Day this year in Simcoe Park.

He wouldn’t have looked sick sitting down and playing, but he needed a walker, and help getting in and out of the car at that point, says Juliet.

After she left Simcoe Park Sunday, Juliet was headed off to join the Niagara Symphony Orchestra to narrate Harriet: A Journey to Freedom, a commissioned piece honouring the life of Harriet Tubman and the local history of the Underground Railroad.

There have been rehearsals and performances for scheduled events leading up to Peter’s death and since, she says — there was even a rehearsal on the day of his death, one she didn’t have to take part in it, but did have to open their studio for musicians who were devastated to hear of his passing.

It couldn’t be cancelled, she says — there wasn’t time to reschedule. “It’s such a cliche, but it’s true, the show must go on.” And several of them have, surrounding her with friends and other musicians, and requiring her to “focus and  compartmentalize. It’s been weird, and hard. But I know Peter would want it that way.”

Juliet lost her mother, Beth Naomi Ellis, in May — she was a 30-year cancer survivor who died of an aneurism. Juliet’s sister, Kim Ellis-Durity, died of cancer in October 2021, just 10 months after being diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.

It’s been an incredibly difficult year, she says, but Peter,  throughout his illness, “was a trouper. He didn’t complain.” On his final day, friends and family stopped by, says Juliet, and he was able to hear Peter’s Song, written for him by one of his students, Emilio Geremia, just 14 years old.

It had been a good day, she says. And when he passed, she added, “it was with a smile on his face.”

Members of the van der Zalm family were also at the park to take part in the run, which honoured John van der Zalm, who died recently after seven years fighting cancer.

Like Terry, says King, “John was no quitter. He came out every year, even when he had to walk it with a cane.” It was such an honour to know him, and to meet his family, she added.

Mandy Ollerhead Faulkner was also at Simcoe Park Sunday, having come from her home in New York State to take part in the run. Faulkner and Alex Schulz organized the first Niagara-on-the-Lake Terry Fox Run in 1991, when they were just high school students. They answered an ad they saw in the newspaper looking for volunteers, organized the route and every other detail, and continued running it until they went away to university, when local volunteers took it over.

Faulkner still comes back for the run every year, except for the two years of the pandemic when crossing the border was a problem. She took part in it Sunday with members of her family, and expressed her gratitude to King for ensuring the local run continues more than 30 years later.

And of course the two top fundraisers for the NOTL run, Joe Pillitteri of Team Pillsy, and Bill Pristanski, in town from Ottawa to take part in his 42nd Marathon of Hope event, were there, Pristanski collecting more than $50,000 in donations, and this year Pillitteri taking it a little easier, walking with several family members and enjoying the morning.

Pillitteri’s sell-out comedy evening at the community centre Friday raised $58,000, with tickets and all proceeds from drinks, a live auction and a raffle going to the Terry Fox Foundation, and with the money collected from the run, he expected his total to reach $80,000 to $90,000.