By Suzanne Mooney
I first saw J.D. at the opening ceremony of Challenge Walk MS: Savannah. Slade Thompson and I had flown to Georgia to observe the three-day, 50-mile walk as part of an event audit we are doing for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. When I saw the tall 30-something-year-old hugging his fellow walkers and excitedly narrating the scene to his Facebook Live audience, my curiosity was piqued.
It wasn’t until just before lunch the next day that I saw J.D. again. We were both walking alone when I turned a corner and noticed him ahead of me on the path. We introduced ourselves and decided to walk to lunch together. A few minutes into our conversation J.D. said, “Do you know what autism is?” I responded, “Yes.” He said, “I have autism but it doesn’t keep me from walking.”
Over the next few miles J.D. shared his story with me. In 2004, he visited a train store in his home town of Salisbury, North Carolina. As a train enthusiast and collector, the train store was a place he frequented. On this particular day, however, he had an experience that left an impression on him.
“There was a woman in the store and she was a bit snappy with me,” J.D. said. “I was offended. Two employees saw it happen and they came over and told me just to avoid the situation. They said she was upset about having MS. I said, ‘What does MS stand for?’ They said, ‘Multiple sclerosis.’”
A few days later J.D. was working at Goodwill, where he has worked since 1998, when he heard a commercial for Challenge Walk MS on the radio.
“I heard, ‘Three days, 50 miles closer to a cure.’ Something told me to stop working and listen to the commercial. I told myself, ‘You know somebody who has MS. Who is it?’ And then I remembered the lady in the train store and I decided to walk for her.”
He had to wait for the commercial to come back on the radio two more times before he was able to write the number down, but he was committed to finding out more.
“I called the 800 number and when the person answered the phone I said, ‘Three days, 50 miles closer to a cure. Do you know anything about that?’ They said, ‘I’ll transfer you to someone who does.’”
Even though he had never fundraised before, when he heard that he had to raise a minimum of $1,500 in order to participate his response was, “I’m going to figure out a way to do this.” And he did.
In less than a month, J.D. raised more than $1,500 by fundraising at his gym. He raised a total of $1,602 that first year. Since 2004, J.D. has participated in 15 Challenge Walk MS events―13 times as a walker and twice as a crew member. He has raised more than $20,000.
J.D. raises most of his money these days through donations from friends and family and by selling candy that he buys in bulk and then sells at his local Waffle House, one dollar at a time.
“Whenever I reach the $1,500 I always feel relieved. I am so blessed I have reached it. Then I can calm down and just relax.”
J.D. still walks for the woman from the train store. She goes to his church and her husband is one of his top donors. But now he also walks for a long list of other people as well.
“I met a woman at work that has MS and I walk for her, too. Even while having MS she got pregnant and had a baby. I told her I walk for MS and she put her arms around my neck and almost cried. She said, ‘I’ve never met anyone who walks for MS.’”
In 2008, J.D.’s mom suggested he create a “prayer shirt” listing the names of everyone he walks for. As of today, there are 68 names on his shirt. He wears it every year at the Saturday night candlelight ceremony when he and his Challenge Walk MS family come together to reflect on their reasons for walking and crewing.
“It’s really a true blessing to be out there,” J.D. said. “I am really close to my fellow walkers. My favorite thing about the event is walking, making new friends, and welcoming new people aboard. When I walk, I feel special. For some reason, I just feel special.”
Three days after I first saw J.D. at the opening ceremony for Challenge Walk MS, Slade and I left Savannah with notes about routes and porta-potties and signage, and more―all things we look at whenever we audit a peer-to-peer fundraising event. But I also left Savannah with a full heart, inspired by J.D. and the unique way he sees the world.
His kindness, compassion, and commitment to curing MS will inspire me for a long time to come. Joy L., one of J.D.’s fellow walkers, sums it up best. Joy says, “J.D. creates so much sunshine at Challenge Walk MS. He is one of the most amazing human beings I have ever met!”
J.D., thank you for all you do to make the world a better place. You are a fundraising hero.
Fundraising Heroes is a new Event 360 blog series where we highlight individuals who are making their communities and the world a better place, one dollar at a time. These people have chosen fundraising as their superpower and we are honored to share their stories. If you know a fundraising hero we should highlight, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us why this person inspires you.
Suzanne Mooney has worked in peer-to-peer fundraising for 14 years and is grateful to be able to make a living by making the world a better place. She has extensive experience in participant recruitment and retention, communications, and consulting services. She currently works on MuckFest® MS and would love for you to sign up and get muddy with us. When Suzanne’s not working you can find her running, riding her bike, or snuggling old dogs. She recently moved to Chicago, IL.