By Leslie Lee III
There will be a twist to this year’s Smashing Walnuts Foundation’s annual charity walk. “In the past it’s just been a walk. This year we’re turning it into a walk and fitness challenge,” Smashing Walnuts Foundation Executive Director Ellyn Miller said.
On Sunday, June 5, in the Heritage High School gymnasium, participants will be asked to not just join the walk-a-thon but also to compete in fitness feats at sponsor booths throughout the race.
“The walk-a-thon has always been great, but we really wanted to find a way for our sponsors to interact with our attendees,” event chairwoman Amanda Gauldin said. “So that’s where the fitness challenge came in.”
In its fourth year, the event raises money for childhood brain cancer research. Last year, the event raised about $10,000, and already Sunday’s event has pledges totaling $16,500, Gauldin credits the spike in interest to the introduction of the fitness challenge.
The Smashing Walnuts Foundation was founded by Leesburg residents Ellyn and Mark Miller, whose daughter Gabriella was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a rare brain cancer with a 100 percent mortality rate. Gabriella became a fierce—and nationally known—advocate for children with cancer and, in one interview, she blurted out, “Talk is bull—,” to express the importance of action to help her and other children diagnosed with cancer.
Gabriella died in 2013 at the age of 10, but the Millers have carried on her fight. “My daughter’s dead. I can’t do anything about that,” Ellyn Miller said. “When she was diagnosed, I couldn’t do anything to change that, but if I can do something now for the children that are yet to be diagnosed so they won’t have that same outcome, then I need to.”
The mission of the Smashing Walnuts Foundation is to “crack” the cure for childhood brain cancer by increasing the funding for research. “We chose research because we found out the fact that there was so little money that goes directly to childhood cancer research,” Miller said.
Cancer drugs can cost upwards of a billion dollars to develop, but just $195 million—4 percent—of the National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is allocated to studying the 12 most common types of childhood cancer. A bipartisan effort brought “The Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act” through the U.S. House and Senate, and President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in April of 2014, with the Millers present. The bill appropriates $126 million to childhood disease research over 10 years.
While the survival rates of leukemia have quadrupled since 1960, childhood brain cancer is still extremely deadly. “Almost one and a half kids a day will be diagnosed with the same cancer as Gabriella, and they’ll all die within 9 to 12 months,” Miller said. “The prognosis is 100 percent fatal. We live in the 21st century; why do we still have these prognoses for these children?”
“Our community here in Loudoun County is absolutely amazing,” Miller said. “They really reach out and embrace families in need. They’ve been really amazing with childhood cancer and I feel really fortunate that we live in such an amazing community.”
Sunday’s walk and fitness challenge is for participants of all ages, and to give the youngest participants a nudge, the foundation will provide a catered dinner for teachers and staff at the registered elementary school that raises the most money. “We want kids to get involved and get excited because the things they do can make a big difference,” Miller said.
Smashing Walnuts Walk and Fitness Challenge
11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, June 5
Heritage High School gymnasium, 520 Evergreen Mills Road, Leesburg
Fundraising levels start at $25.Start a team, join a team or sign up as an individual.