WESTERLY — More than 200 local residents, employees and heart health enthusiasts laced up their sneakers to walk in the 23rd annual Greater Westerly Heart Walk Saturday morning.
The total of their fundraising efforts, which goes to research and education at the American Heart Association, won’t be calculated until Monday, according to Michelle Karn, communications director for AHA. Karn said the goal was to reach $40,000. Going into the event, participants raised about $22,000, and thanks to 155 additional envelopes turned in Saturday, Karn said she is confidant that number will increase.
This year’s event honored longtime fundraiser, community member and Washington Trust employee Jerry Pie, who passed away last fall.
“He was such an enthusiastic fundraiser,” said Mary Ellen Buckley, who has been involved in the heart walk in some way for more than 20 years, as a fundraiser and walker for the Westerly Community Credit Union team, as well as the former chair and current member of the planning committee.
Pie raised over $17,500 in three years for the Washington Trust team, according to a previous Sun article.
“He really was an inspiration for a lot of other walkers,” said Karn.
“It just wasn’t the same without him this year,” Buckley said, adding that many of his family members joined the walk this year.
The Washington Trust team has been a longtime sponsor and participant in the event. Other sponsors included the credit union, Westerly Hospital, L+M Hospital and Maxson Automachinery Company.
Local businesses, including TLC Boutique, Rosanna’s Flowers and 84 Tavern on Canal, donated gift cards and prizes for a raffle event in conjunction with the walk. Food for the event was donated by Bess Eaton, Pizza Lady, Dominos and Subway. Many of these businesses and other local teams participate every year, according to Buckley.
The planning committee begins monthly meetings in January to organize the event and reach out to local businesses and teams, she said.
“If we can add one new team each year, we usually see that as a big success,” she said.
However, Buckley also said that finding new supporters, especially in this economy, can be challenging.
“In this economy, you have to be understanding if businesses have to scale back their donations,” she said. “Working for a local business, I can understand that.”
This year’s chair, Nick Stahl of Westerly Hospital, said that despite such difficulties, heading the committee was fairly easy for him.
“Most of the committee members have worked together and for this cause for several years,” he said. “They’re well-versed in how this works, and with the backup offered by the heart association, my job was not difficult, but a pleasure.”
Stahl, the executive director of the Westerly Hospital Foundation, has walked and particpated as a committee member for “several years.”
Based on calculated totals prior to Saturday on the AHA website, the Washington Trust team, headed by captain Lina Carreiro-O’Leary, was this year’s top fundraiser at $1,390. The Connecting Hearts team, led by Kim Savastano, was not far behind at $1,143.
More than in past years, many one-person teams joined the cause on Saturday, according to Buckley. Though one-person groups may not be able to raise quite as much money as their 10-person counterparts, Buckley said that no amount of money is too little or insignificant.
“The turnout this year was outstanding,” said Karn, explaining that this year’s participation was higher than last year.”We’re really pleased with this year’s event and eager to count up the pennies on Monday.”
In Rhode Island, AHA invests $1.3 million each year in general research related to heart disease, with money given to institutions including Rhode Island Hospital and the University of Rhode Island, according to Buckley.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of AHA’s Heart Walks. Now, more than 350 walks occur around the country every year, and are one of the “signature events” of the organization, as well as their biggest fundraiser.
Bringing a national event back to a hometown level, Buckley said that seeing community members and families rally together around this cause is rewarding and inspiring. Buckley credited her own family history of heart problems and her father’s bypass surgery as her motivation to get involved.
“Just talking to someone with heart disease makes it seem so important,” she said. “When Peter Fusaro and his family started coming last year, and I talked to them, they just brought me to tears.”