Wellness House walk to hit the streets

Run or walk to support nonprofit's programs, honor survivors, remember loved ones

As a radiation oncologist at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Arpi Thukral often struggled to help her cancer patients find psycho-social support, exercise programs and nutrition resources.

"That's when I first had found out about Wellness House," she said.

Thukral is serving as co-chair of this year's Walk for Wellness House on Sunday, May 5. Touring the Hinsdale facility, coordinating the annual fundraising ball and joining the board of directors deepened her connection with the organization over the years. She also participated in her first walk the year after she lost her uncle to leukemia.

"It was just really inspiring to be there," she said. "I remember the first year they had this balloon release for all patients, survivors and loved ones who had passed away from cancer. I thought that was so touching to have all the balloons fly up in the air at the same time."

For environmental reasons, the balloon release is no longer part of the walk. But Thukral, co-chair Mahrukh Hussain and other organizers have plenty in store for participants.

"One of the ideas we came up with this year is to really help keep families, especially young kids, engaged," Thukral said. "Were going to have some different events at each mile marker. There might be a face painter at one of the mile markers or a balloon guy."

Participants will have the chance to stretch with Achieve Physical Therapy before the walk and food trucks will be on hand once runners and walkers cross the finish line.

Thukral, who now works at Northwestern, was walk co-chair last year as well, when the event made history by raising more than $770,000.

"I was on the podium looking out into the sea of purple shirts. We had over 3,000 participants all walking together. My kids ran it. It was just a really nice event bringing together the community and people," she said.

Thukral appreciates the fact that anyone can participate in the walk - and registration extends up until the start of the event.

"The thing I like about it is it's for everyone," she said. "You don't have to be a huge donor or be at a gala. You can just show up - show up with a person or who up with a team."

More than 3,200 people already plan to show up May 5. As of Wednesday, $589,000 of the $750,000 goal had been raised.

"It feels on target and it feels like it's a good goal to inspire people to get involved, and it also feels attainable for us, which is exciting," said Lisa Kolavennu, chief executive officer of Wellness House.

Forty-nine sponsors to date have signed on to support the event financially, which Kolavennu sees as significant.

"It continues to be an indication that this is important to people, that we are able to generate support for it and get excited about it," she said.

She agreed with Thukral that the walk is an easy event to be part of and described it as an energizing and feel-good morning.

"My favorite moment of the walk is just before it starts when we've got everyone's attention on the stage and we shine a light on our participants," she said.

One participant shares a bit of their story with the crowd before the 10-step walk takes place.

"That's a special space for people who want to be involved and demonstrate their strength, but perhaps 10 steps is the most they are able to do that day," Kolavennu said. "It's our way and the community's way to support them and cheer them on on their journey."

Among the participants this year will be a team of mostly first-grade Girl Scouts from The Lane School. Team organizer Amrita Shaffer, who is treasurer for the troop, has first-hand experience with cancer. After her grandmother passed away from leukemia years ago, her father left his career in finance to open a cancer diagnostic center. And her husband is a two-time cancer survivor, facing Hodgkins lymphoma before they got married and aggressive carcinoma the year before the couple had their second child.

"This year, it's going to be 10 years of remission for my husband from the first cancer he had," she said.

Shaffer didn't know anything about Wellness House until she commented on the attractive building on North County Line Road while on a walk with a friend.

She said she hopes the walk will send a message to the team member that it's important - and it feels good - to give back.

"That's what I've been trying to teach my own kids," she said. "Why are we doing this walk? We are doing this walk for the people who fought and won. We are doing this walk for the people who fought and paid the ultimate price. We walk for the people who are doing treatment right now and fighting. We walk for the loved ones who are supporting these people because every role is hard."

Kolavennu emphasized that the walk is one of the nonprofit's two signature fundraising events, the other being the ball in October. The two events could mean almost $2 million in funds this year for Wellness House to continue to support those on the cancer journey.

"It's an opportunity for so many people to come together, to do something to support those around them and to make sure the free programs at Wellness House continue to be available to all who need them," Kolavennu said, adding that there is still time to sign up for the walk. "We're grateful for every single step and every single dollar of support."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean