SACO – For the past two decades, a small number of people have met regularly in Saco to plan a charity walk and run to commemorate the life of Mary Kerry Libby. Together they have created Mary’s Walk and the Kerrymen 5K road race and along the way, they changed the springtime landscape of their hometown.
As a combined entity, the walk and the run are one of the largest community-based charity events in the state, an event designed to raise money in order to help in the fight against cancer, Now it is also one of the of the longest running events.
Gene Libby, Mary’s husband, remembers the ideas and hopes that fueled the creation of the walk and the run in 1999. For Libby, when he thinks about what this small group of dedicated volunteers has accomplished together, it almost seems impossible.
“We’ve raised more than $3 million in the 20 years that we have been doing this,” Libby said recently and paused for a moment as he considered what he had just described. “In the beginning, we wanted to make a difference for the people of Maine and those who might be faced with the same issues my family face.”
Mary’s Walk and the Kerrymen 5K takes place on the first Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day. For many runners and people who live in the area and wish to participate, the two events represent the beginning of Spring, a season of hope and renewal. That sentiment is not lost on Libby or the other board members who work for months to help organize the two events.
This year the walk and the run will take place on Sunday, March 18 and as has become the custom, there will be a guest speaker at Thornton Academy, the staging and registration area for both events. This year, the speaker will be Ken Janson, a Thornton Academy Trustee, a Mary’s Walk Board Member, and now, a cancer survivor. His job that day will be to try to convey to the participants how grateful and appreciative he and the other board members are for their continued support and help.
“In November of 2016, I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer,” Janson said in a voice that often reflects the months of treatments and medical procedures he’s endured. “We always talked about how important this event was to people, to their families, but now it has taken on a whole new meaning for me.”
Last year, Ken and Laurie Janson (also a board member and a longtime event volunteer) started a team in Ken’s name. They spread the word to family, friends, and business associates and before they knew it, they had raised nearly $10,000 for the Maine Cancer Foundation, the recipient of the funds raised during Mary’s Walk weekend.
Unfortunately, Janson is not the only board member to have been afflicted during the past 20 years. Tony LeBlanc, the treasurer for the group, was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer, and like Mary Kerry Libby, he faced this disease with his family.
“As a cancer survivor myself, this event means a great deal to me,” LeBlanc said. “I feel as though I am here, in part, because of the fundraising and research in the cancer field prior to my diagnosis. I feel an obligation to somehow stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and play my small part in continuing the work.”
On the day of the event, LeBlanc is certainly not alone. There are usually 150-175 students from Thornton Academy who assemble in the Linnell Gymnasium and provide support for the runners, walkers, and the staff working during the event. What may make this year’s event even more special is that Mary’s granddaughter, a junior at Thornton Academy, will be among the volunteers.
“Since day one there has always been a waiting list of kids looking to volunteer and help,” said Teri Arenstam, a Thornton Academy science teacher and the volunteer coordinator for the event.
It is not unusual to see the students completely fill a section of the bleachers in the school’s gymnasium as they get ready to take to the streets and help monitor the route.
The list of volunteers is long and many of the those who help with the event have done so for a number of years. This year, as in years past, that will also include Rene Menard, the headmaster of Thornton Academy.
“We often speak to students about the importance of giving back to their community and we are pleased to have hundreds of student volunteers helping with the event each year. Our faculty and staff have been tremendous supporters of the event as well. They are the ones who rally the student volunteers. They are the ones who model the importance of volunteerism and inspire our students to get involved,” he said.
On the day of the event, the streets surrounding the school are filled with runners, walkers, and people pushing strollers filled with young children. The city’s police and public works department come out in force to lend a hand and the one common denominator for these thousands of people seems to be the smile that appears on their face when they connect with so many of their friends and neighbors.
“Seeing the thousands of participants and volunteers who gather on our campus each spring is powerful,” Menard said. “It gives hope to all of us who have been impacted by cancer and we are grateful to be a small part of this remarkable event.”
After the last runner and walker have headed home for the day, the board members will work with the city to clean the route and make sure the equipment and material from the event are safely stored away for the next year. Each person is tired but tired in a way that lifts their spirits as they think about what they have accomplished.
The event has now been held for 20 years and no one really knows how long it will go on, but each person on the organizing committee seems determined, for their own reasons, to make a difference.
“I hope that someday we will no longer need to hold the event,” Tony LeBlanc said. With a small knowing smile, he adds, “that would mean a cure has been found. We’ve done our job.”