For the last 15 years, Dawn Smith of Harrisburg has helped raise about $40,000 for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
The 44-year-old mother of two has biked and walked nearly 1,500 miles in honor of her mother, Anna Gust of Concord, and sister, Diana Cole of New York, who are among the 400,000 U.S. residents with MS, a chronic disease of the central nervous system.
Smith has lived in Harrisburg since 1985 with her husband, Phillip, and their children, Jacob and Kristen.
She is training for her ninth year of walking 50 miles in three days for the Carolinas Challenge Walk MS, which will be March 4-6 in Charleston.
Another walk, The Walk MS: Cabarrus County, is on May 14. The three-mile community walk will begin at 9 a.m. at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Last year's event drew 440 participants and raised $27,000 to fight MS.
Smith starts training about four months before the Carolinas event. She walks about four miles every day. About six weeks before the Challenge Walk, she walks four miles each weekday and 12 miles on the weekends.
Participants of the Challenge Walk are required to raise at least $1,500. Smith raises about $3,000 each year with donations from neighbors, friends and coworkers.
"Dawn is an advocate for research to find a cure for the disease," said Harrisburg resident Kathy Fredrick who, along with her husband, Greg, has given to Smith since her first year. Greg's dad also has MS.
"We support her mission wholeheartedly, as our father has been living with the disease for the last 40 years and we have seen some improvements in his disease with the advancement of new medical therapies that were provided by research."
Smith said she has understands that her efforts probably won't help her mother with the disease, but she believes there's hope for a cure or better treatments for her sister and others.
Her mother was diagnosed with MS in 1984, but because it is a relatively new disease, she unknowingly lived with it for about 20 years before that. Her sister was diagnosed a few years later and manages the disease with therapy and medications.
Helping the cause in honor of her mother and sister is a major part of why she does it.
"I just hope that somewhere down the road there will be drugs to either slow it down or they'll find a cure," she said. "It's a very emotional experience when you cross the finish line after 50 miles. It's humbling, too.
"You go the first day and everybody takes off walking. By the end of that day, there are a lot of sore muscles, a lot of blisters. When you go through Day Two...everybody's pace slows down, the blisters are worse and you're talking to people as you walk. That's one thing I like most about it. On the third day, you walk nine of the miles and stop about a mile short, where everybody gathers... . You put on shirts and the people with MS, their shirts are a different color. You sit there and go, 'Oh my God, they have MS.' You walked beside them and you would have never known, or maybe you did know - it's just humbling. There are people you don't talk to for a year, but when you see them again at these events, there's an instant connection. It's a different type of bond."
Smith shares a special bond with her mother, she said, because they've been together through a lot of tough times, including her mother's divorce. Smith, a construction supervisor for Duke Energy in Salisbury, also helps with major chores and upkeep projects around her mother's Concord home, where she designed and had a ramp installed to help make her mother's trips safer. Labor and materials were donated.
"She doesn't stop," said Gust, Smith's 77-year-old mother. "She's a go-getter. It's unbelievable and I'm proud of her work not only for MS but for everything. She cares for me - always. We're always teasing each other and we're probably more like sisters than mother and daughter. I love her very much, and I love all the people working for MS because we will find a cure. Maybe not in my lifetime, but they will. They'll find a cure."
Smith said the act of helping is something almost anyone can do.
"These aren't races," she said. "These are walks, and people look at it that way. If you walk a mile an hour, you get there. It gets done. And the money you're raising could help your next-door neighbor; it could help your child, your parents. You just don't know how far-reaching it's going to be for whatever (cause) you're doing it for."
Lori Trievel, 38, of Connecticut, met dawn during her first MS walk in 2009. She walks for my mother who was diagnosed with MS three years ago.
"Being my first walk, I had no idea what to expect," she said. "I walked about the first five miles alone and then came across Dawn. We had the same pace so we began to chat. I immediately felt welcomed and warmed by her kind Southern personality. The more we talked, the more she inspired me.... When the walk was over, she said, 'See you next year.' The first day of the walk last year, she found me and we walked and talked and talked another 50 miles. I can't wait to see her in three weeks to catch up on life.
"Dawn is an inspiration to anyone who stops to hear her story. I am amazed every year how everyone who passes us or that we come upon, knows Dawn. She certainly has touched lots of peoples lives."