Thursday August 02, 2018
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” said the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu. South Burlington resident Barbara Sirvis has championed that philosophy, literally, one step at a time.
Upon retiring as president of Southern Vermont College 12 years ago, she decided she wanted to be healthier as she approached Medicare age. By then, Sirvis was walking a couple of miles a day. When she told her friend, and practiced walker, Betty McEnaney, about her new fitness routine, McEnaney encouraged Sirvis to walk alongside her – 26.2 miles. A marathon. Not just any marathon, but the 2011 Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, an annual event that brings more than 9,000 people together, all taking steps to conquer cancer and raise funds for research and patient care at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Sirvis researched walking programs, then began training on Memorial Day of 2011. By mid-July she made it to the 14-mile mark, more than half a marathon. There were seven weeks remaining until the Jimmy Fund Walk, and Sirvis was confident; if she could walk 14 miles, she could walk 26.
On the morning of the marathon, she arrived at the starting line in Hopkinton with McEnaney, now Sirvis’ marathon walking partner. Ten hours later, she crossed the finish line at Copley Place. More than 52,000 steps. $3,500 dollars raised. Last year, was her largest yet: $12,000, placing her in the top 50 for fundraising. To date, Sirvis has raised an awe-inspiring $54, 357. No amount is too little; it all adds up, and who knows, as Sirvis says, “One day one of my dollars might help fund a cure or a new treatment.”
Looking back on the day she made the decision to walk her first marathon, Sirvis remembers thinking, “It was all about me, a challenge to myself, and a challenge from a friend who said, ‘You can do this.’” But while training, she learned that a former colleague had begun cancer treatment at Dana Farber, and then she received a note from a friend whose father also had cancer. The note read, “My dad has your back.” Sirvis’ purpose was strengthened. She was not only walking for herself, but, from then on, was also walking for the ever-growing number of people affected by cancer.
Sirvis started writing the names of individuals with cancer on the back of her Jimmy Fund Walk t-shirt. In 2011, she collected 126 names. Then she began adding donors’ names on the sleeves, and in 2017 alone, she counted 96. As she enters her eighth year as a Jimmy Fund Walker, a running total of 576 friends and family with cancer grace her shirt. Along with her donors, they cheer her forward with their virtual presence as she takes each step. In return, she is well held with the knowledge, “They have my back.”
Those who have Sirvis’ back come from all over. She sometimes receives Facebook messages from people asking her to write on her shirt the name of a loved one, a friend, or a neighbor. Recently, a friend of Sirvis’ reached out to her to let her know that one of their mutual friends was in hospice and wanted to make sure her name was added. “Everyone knows about my shirt,” Sirvis says.
One year, while traveling in her RV to Southern California, where she spends her winters, she met a woman at a campground in Arkansas. When Sirvis learned she had received cancer treatment a day earlier, she told her she was training for the marathon, and wrote the woman’s name on her shirt. While camping in Salem, Massachusetts one year she walked into town, and when talking with people there, they asked her if she had a car. She told them she had walked the six miles. After sharing with them that she was training for the marathon, they gave her $20 and three names. Though most donate when they ask that a name be added, this is not a requirement of Sirvis; she continues walking, carried by the mantra she has written on her shirt: “In honor, in memory, in hope.” She passes that mantra on to those who ask for a photo of her shirt, so they can send it to people whose names back her up, mile after grateful mile. Having the photo is a way for people to commemorate loved ones who have died from cancer, and for survivors it’s a badge of lasting celebration.
As she makes her way from mile one, to mile five, 10, then up Heartbreak Hill at mile 20, Sirvis knows the 170 hours to walk the 600 miles in preparation for the marathon are worth it. Her gift in the end? The smiles of the Jimmy Fund Walk Heroes, who greet her from the sandwich boards every half-mile with their soul-lifting messages. The six-year-old who wants to be a transplant doctor “like my best friend.” The nine-year-old who wants to be a wildlife biologist. The 22-year-old who loves making others laugh, and says, “I aspire to be an actress.” And the one special hero, who Sirvis attributes to giving her “the roots she needed to fly and take risks,” her mother. Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 90, she is at rest over Sirvis’ heart.
Though Sirvis realizes the first step in any endeavor is the most difficult, she remembers what a colleague once told her. “You spend a third of your life learning, a third earning, and a third giving back.”
“I’m in the giving back stage,” she vows. So she continues walking, inspired by other marathoners — the blister-prone man in leather-soled shoes, and another man with cerebral palsy. While she acknowledges, “They are walking the walk,” Sirvis is too, one steady foot in front of the other.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor