In the Spotlight 'Generosity ... is overwhelming': 'Walk of Hope' organizer expects to raise $100,000

·5 min read

Jun. 3—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — When children in Johnstown are diagnosed with cancer, the emotional toll on their families is accompanied by the cost of gasoline to drive to treatment centers in Pittsburgh multiple times each week for months or even years, nurse Marlene Singer said.

Johnstown residents battling cancer may have outstanding payments for medication, utilities or mortgages.

As coordinator of the Johnstown Walk of Hope, Singer works to lessen those financial worries.

The nonprofit Johnstown Walk of Hope organization was created in 2016 from what Singer saw as a need to generate funds for local cancer patients' daily lives.

In the walk's early years, the amount of funding raised wasn't important, Singer said, but was important was that it all would benefit local patients in some way.

Now, seven years later, the Walk of Hope has a system in place that makes financial resources available for patients at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center.

"We've paid electric bills, car payments, mortgages, taxes for people so they don't lose their house," she said. "These are the everyday needs patients facing cancer have that they worry about."

And for those families driving to UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, the Walk of Hope provides Giant Eagle gift cards to help with gas expenses.

Hundreds of people are expected to fill Greater Johnstown High School's Trojan Stadium starting at 8 a.m. Saturday for the seventh Johnstown Walk of Hope.

The walk begins at 9 a.m. with a blessing, followed by a brief remembrance ceremony and introduction of the teams participating in the walk.

Aside from people involved in teams, there is no registration needed, and donations of any amount are accepted at the gate.

"Last year, we made $69,000, and this year, will be close to $100,000," Singer said. "It's crazy when you think about it. It started as a little walk that raised $30,000.

"The generosity of this community is overwhelming. I think we've been able to grow so quickly because people see the good it's doing for their relatives or someone in their church or school and they want to give back."

In 2016, Singer established a fund with the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies to manage the donations, and her main contact at that nonprofit was Katrina Perkosky, the foundation's donor and development services officer.

"What's so wonderful about her is she doesn't think of, 'No,' when she does something she thinks is important. She just does it," Perkosky said of Singer, "and she is so good at getting people on board to help."

Singer coordinates the walk and fundraising efforts year-round, whether she is putting on a program at a local school or running around town delivering flowers for the organization's daffodil fundraiser.

"There's so much she's doing beyond the walk, which is a huge ordeal in itself," Perkosky said. "I don't know how she has the time to do everything."

Perkosky, a breast cancer survivor, was diagnosed in March 2019.

"When I was diagnosed with cancer, she was the first person I called," Perkosky said. "I only knew her through work, but I knew she could help."

Perkosky said Singer answered the phone and offered to meet her immediately.

" 'What are you doing? I want to take you to lunch,' " Perkosky remembers Singer saying to her.

Having worked with the Walk of Hope prepared Perkosky for the moment she was diagnosed.

"You don't know how hard it is," she said. "It is very expensive. The work Marlene has done is so that people already fighting for their lives can focus on their health and not worry about how to keep the lights on."

Singer was born and raised in Johnstown.

"I was in my 20s when my mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and she lived a very healthy lifestyle," Singer said. "She was much older when she had cancer a second time. She wanted people to know her story because it was one of being in touch with your own health and knowing when something is wrong and making sure doctors do tests needed to get a diagnosis. That's when I started doing more education and fundraising for cancer patients. The Johnstown Walk of Hope was just born out of a need for money to stay local."

Singer has 30 years of experience as a nurse and held the position of community health coordinator for Conemaugh Health System from 2004 to 2018.

"I've been doing awareness, prevention, health education for my entire career as a nurse," she said. "I've been able to meet so many people from different walks of life who are truly inspirational when you hear their story. The rewarding part is seeing the money raised get to the people who need it. In a world where there are so many donations given out there, you don't always know where it goes, so the most rewarding part for me is actually seeing people get taken care of."

Singer said she hopes the walk continues to thrive for many years to come.

"I believe most strongly and have seen the power that community support can make for someone," she said. "I believe nobody gets through their day-to-day life without some level of support from somebody.

"For cancer patients to know there's a whole systematic framework in place of support for them is what I believe makes a difference."