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Jingle Bell Run helps fund worthy cause

Lily Salkovitz is 4 years old. She has blonde hair and brown eyes. She loves to color and draw.

And she has rheumatoid arthritis. In her hands. In her elbows. In her ankles.

“When you think of arthritis you think of me, not my granddaughter,” said Lily’s grandmother, Donna Kearny.

Donna said she doesn’t have arthritis, but some 46 million other Americans do.

The numbers are staggering according to the Arthritis Foundation: 27 million have osteoarthritis; 1.3 million have rheumatoid arthritis; 300,000 children have juvenile arthritis.

“It’s the main cause of disability in the United States,” said Diana Hirshberg, community development specialist of the Southwest Region of the Florida Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation in Bradenton.

Lily is able to lead a normal life thanks to medication developed by research funded in part by donations to the Arthritis Foundation that come from such events as tonight’s Jingle Bell Run/Walk for Arthritis in Bradenton. The 5K (3.1 mile) race/walk starts at 7 p.m. The 1-mile walk begins at 7:15. The start and finish lines are on 12th Street West (Old Main Street).

The annual fun run, now in its 13 years, is expected to draw a record crowd. Hirshberg said more than 1,400 have registered, already topping last year’s turnout. The 2007 event drew 500 race-day registrants. Another walk-up like that tonight could push the field close to 2,000.

That’s a lot of people running and walking for a great cause.

It is the largest field for a race in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

With preregistration set at $20 for adults and $10 for children under 12, the race has already raised nearly $29,000. With race-day registration set at $25 for adults and $15 for children under 12, the foundation hopes to reach its goal of raising $50,000.

“We’ll make it,” Hirshberg said. “I thought with the economy being what it is, donations would be down, but that has not been the case.”

There are more than 100 forms of arthritis, and if you don’t have arthritis, it is likely you know someone who does. It doesn’t have to be your grandfather or the elderly lady who lives across the street. It can be a cute-as-a-button 4-year-old named Lily or 15-year-old Toi Leone of Sarasota, who already had one knee replacement surgery and is awaiting on another.

Hirshberg said 1-in-3 Floridians have some form of arthritis. The numbers are 1-in-5 nationwide.

Lily was 2 when doctors discovered the pain in her joints was arthritis.

Two.

Lily lives in St. Petersburg with her family, but you might know her. Lily’s mom, KathyDan, graduated from Manatee High.

Lily is very popular. There will be 150 people running and walking tonight for her. They are known as Lily’s Legion.

“Isn’t it amazing,” Kearny said. “It just grew and grew.”

Kearny used to work at Stewart Elementary School. She started a running program with the students. The school is one of many with a team in tonight’s race.

Many of the Stewart kids are in Lily’s Legion.

“All those little ones running for my little one,” Kearny said.

The goal was to raise $1,000, but with the help of some who donated but won’t participate tonight, Lily’s Legion raised more than $3,500.

“I’m blessed with lots of good friends and lots of good people who wanted to help out,” Kearny said.

The Jingle Bell Run/Walk will be quite the sight tonight as more than 1,000 people move through the streets of downtown Bradenton wearing the traditional bells on their sneakers. Some will run the race for time; others for a good time.

It is one of nine Jingle Bell Run/Walk for Arthritis held in Florida. Hirshberg said it will have by far the largest field and raise the most money.

“Little old Bradenton,” Hirshberg said. “And I want to thank everybody for their support.”

There is still time to register. Call 941-708-3901 for information.

The proceeds go toward helping people like Lily and Toi and the other millions who suffer from arthritis.

“The more money we raise the sooner we can find a cure,” Kearny said.

Lily will participate in the 5K. Her folks will push her in her stroller. Hey, 3.1 miles is a long way to walk for a 4-year-old.

“But,” Kearny said, “Lily will walk across the finish line.”

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