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Freedom Fest

Steve Cuomo speaks about the achievements of Rolling Thunder, one of the marathon teams raising money for athletes with special needs. Photo by Colm Ashe

By Colm Ashe

Last year Suffolk County laced up their running shoes and got moving in support of the first ever Suffolk County Marathon: Freedom Fest, an event dedicated to raising money for local veteran services.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and sponsors, including Catholic Health Services, organized the first ever 26.2 mile race last year, which raised more than $160,000.

This year, they hope to continue their success at the second annual Freedom Fest on Oct. 30 — but their vision has expanded beyond just aiding local veterans.

On July 21, Bellone held a press conference to announce the marathon, half marathon and 5k, that will allow registrants to run for their own charitable causes.

Though Bellone’s goal when organizing the event was to raise funds for Suffolk County veterans — a community of over 90,000 — he said he believes there are other causes worthy of a champion. He is welcoming anyone with a cause to join the event and raise money for their philanthropic mission.

Bellone does this with the hope that people will “utilize the marathon in a way that will raise funds for other wonderful organizations” in addition to supporting our veterans. Many teams came to the press conference to speak about their cause.

Among those who came to represent their cause was Team Liberty, an organization dedicated to raising funds and awareness about organ donation. Christian Siems, a 22-year old team member from Greenlawn, could be seen sporting the silver medal he won this summer at the Transplant Games of America — just 14 months after he received his heart transplant. Margaret O’Reilly, another Team Liberty member, could be seen holding a picture of her son, Stephen Valsechi, who passed away but saved the lives of four others by donating his organs.

Siems’ mother, Michele Martines, addressed the state of organ donation in Suffolk County and said even though New York accounts for 10 percent of the national waiting list for organs, we rank among the lowest when it comes to registered organ donors. She strives to help NY “come out of last place and go to first place.”

Another organization with a team in this year’s marathon is Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit for athletes with special needs. Steve Cuomo spoke for the team and brought up one of their members, Tysheem Griffin, who will be participating in the paralympics in Brazil this year along with one other teammate, Michael Brannigan.

Patty’s Pacers, a team raising money for the Patricia Keane DeGeorge Memorial Scholarship, paid tribute to Patricia at the event by telling her story. They said she was an example of how to triumph in the face of adversity, continuing on with her nursing degree even after being diagnosed with leukemia. A fighter to the very end, she died soon after receiving the news that she had graduated nursing school. Her spirit lives on in Patty’s Pacers.

A team representing Mothers Against Drunk Driving also came to represent their cause. Richard Mallow, the NYS executive director for MADD, said his team is hoping to change Suffolk County from leading the state in drunk driving incidents.

The Airborne Tri Team joined the event to continue their efforts in serving mentally and physically disabled war veterans. Their team is made up of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

The teams at the event are not the only ones bringing their personal passions to the race. Thousands of people have signed up to run in this year’s race in October. From people aspiring to meet health goals to teams of veterans running in honor of their fellow troops and veterans, all have stories to tell.

Visit www.suffolkmarathon.com to represent a cause, create a team, help contribute to veteran services, or join the race.