Many of us have taken to the streets during COVID-19, walking to stay fit and fight boredom. Patsy Harkess is no exception. But what is exceptional is that Patsy has walked 1,000 miles amid the pandemic to support ALS awareness and fundraising. Her story is one of determination, love for a friend, philanthropy, and a humble heart.
Last April Patsy was planning an 80th birthday trip to do the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage in Spain, but she had to cancel because of the pandemic.
Patsy was disappointed but knew it was the right decision. Life went on, including her daily three to four mile walk. However, the canceled pilgrimage was still on her mind. “It was the first day of May, a beautiful day,” Patsy says, and she had an idea that day. “‘I wonder if I could maybe do 12 to 14 miles? I will just try,’ and I did,” Patsy says.
She started walking every day through her Anchorage neighborhood, with the goal of completing 500 miles. She wanted to finish in roughly the same time as the pilgrimage, which meant walking 12 to 15 miles per day for 40 days.
As she walked, she spent a lot of time thinking about her long-time friend Mary Jane, who was facing a recent diagnosis of ALS, a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function. “ALS is the worst of the worst, it is always fatal, and there are only four drugs to treat symptoms,” says Helen Overfield, executive director of the ALS Association Kentucky Chapter.
Patsy says, “After having done a few long walks, I wondered if I could do this for ALS.” She talked to Mary Jane, who supported the idea, so Patsy reached out to the ALS Association Kentucky Chapter. She also worked with her daughter to navigate social media to share her mission to raise funds and awareness for ALS.
“It was a cold call so-to-speak, to see what she could do,” says Helen, about the day that Patsy reached out. The chapter, which holds its own walk event each year in Louisville, and three other cities statewide, had canceled in-person walks, but virtual walk events were still happening. They linked Patsy to the ALS walk website where she announced her goal to walk and raise $5,000.
Patsy completed 500 miles on June 9, 2020. Her friend Mary Jane, and several others, were there to see her finish. “There wasn’t a day that I missed. Some days, I wasn’t sure I would make all the miles, but I did it,” Patsy says. She had also far surpassed her fundraising goal. “She did a fantastic job of raising funds,” Helen says.
But Patsy wasn’t done yet. She was thrilled to reach so many people through her 500 miles, so she set out to do it again! Late summer 2020 she finished 1,000 miles, with her last walk taking place at Mary Jane’s farm in New Hampshire, a place where the friends have spent a lot of time together over the years. Patsy’s fundraising efforts yielded over $25,000 for ALS.
Patsy is modest about her accomplishment, but Helen Overfield sees it differently. How can you not be inspired by someone who has done what she has done?” she asks. A majority of the funds raised will stay local to support The ALS Association Kentucky Chapter, including services for patients and families, equipment provided free of charge, and mini-grants to offset ALS-related expenses. Additionally, a portion of the funds will go toward research. “I hope that researchers can find a cure,” Patsy says.
BY TAMI PYLES | PHOTOS BY MELISSA DONALD