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Walk for Shea Megale is April 24

Virginia Run's Shea Megale always leads the way in the annual, fund-raising Walk for Shea. But joining her this year, besides her family, will be her best buddy — her service dog Mercer.

"THEY GO everywhere together," said Shea's mom, Megan Megale. "As soon as the two were matched up, they were inseparable."

Shea, 9 1/2, is the youngest of Megan and Larry Megale's three children, and she has SMA (spinal muscular atrophy), a rare and terminal form of muscular dystrophy which has no cure. And each April's 5K walk through her community helps raise money for research that could someday find a cure in time to save the lives of her and others.

The Eighth Annual Walk for Shea will be held Sunday, April 24, at 9 a.m. It begins at the Virginia Run Community Center, at Pleasant Valley Road and Wetherburn Court, off Route 29 in Centreville. It's held, rain or shine, and registration forms are available at the Web site, www.walkforshea.com. Cost is $6 for adults and $4 for children under 18; children under 2 are free; strollers and friendly dogs are welcome.

Last year's walk drew 600 walkers and raised $20,000, and walk coordinator Mo Nieves hopes for an equally successful event this time. Proceeds go to the handful of scientists, worldwide, working on finding a cure. In addition, donations may be made to Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, P.O. Box 196, Libertyville, IL 60048.

Just don't tell Shea that the funds might help her, too. "As Shea has aged, she understands more, and one of the things she's adamant about is that the walk is not for her," said her mom. "She thinks she's perfect and, if there's a cure, she wants it for others. She's happy the way she is. She wants the money to go toward kids whose parents don't have enough money for wheelchairs and medical expenses."

Fittingly, Megan Megale works for a biotechnology company seeking a cure for SMA. She's the senior, medical-sales representative, overseeing all the hospitals in Virginia and Washington, D.C., and, she said, "It's by sheer coincidence that I ended up working for this type of company. Shea's dad Larry is an engineer with Blackbird Technologies and coaches Centreville High's varsity lacrosse team.

Her sister Kelley, 15, is a freshman at Westfield High, and brother Matthew, 14, is an eighth-grader at Stone Middle School. Shea is a fourth-grader at Virginia Run Elementary where her favorite subjects are social studies and math.

SHE ENJOYS swimming and has water therapy, as well as physical therapy, every week. She also loves traveling and visiting relatives in New York, plus playing with her friends and siblings. And in her spare time, said Shea, "I like watching 'SpongeBob SquarePants' and 'The Simpsons' on TV and listening to both rock and country music."

She'll eventually need an operation to correct the severe curvature of her spine. But since it'll permanently stop her growth, her parents don't want to take that step until it's absolutely necessary. Meanwhile, she wears a body brace during the daytime.

And now that Shea has a companion dog, her world has changed dramatically. "She got him last May," said her mom: "And right now, there's nothing more important in her life than Mercer."

A black Labrador, he's 2 years old and came from Canine Companions for Independence. Based in Santa Rosa, Calif., the organization trains dogs from birth, for almost two years, and places them with people with disabilities. Each dog is then trained specifically to meet its new owner's individual needs.

Shea was on a waiting list for a service dog for 2 1/2 years, but she and Mercer were a team, right from the start. And the group will bring other skilled, companion dogs and their owners to participate in the April 24 Walk for Shea. Included will be the people who trained Mercer.

"He's the greatest," said Shea. "The coolest thing he does for me is to really help me feel confident about myself. He helps me mentally because he makes me feel independent."

For example, Mercer opens doors for her, turns on lights, picks up anything she drops and carries her backpack. And, said Megan Megale, "If she's cold at night, she'll give him a command and he'll pull up the covers to her neck."

Mercer even helps Shea shop. "At the mall, she'll give him the money for a purchase, and he'll jump on the counter, give it to the clerk, wait for change, give it to Shea and carry the bag [of merchandise] through the mall," said Megale. "The dog is absolutely amazing."

"It's awesome — Mercer is her puzzle piece," she continued. "They sleep together with their two heads on the pillow. At school, he sleeps under her desk. But he's awake at night in case she needs something. And the minute she calls his name, he'll jump up, ready to do whatever she needs."

ALL IN ALL, said Megale, the two are a perfect match. "He's the greatest buddy a friend could ever have," said Shea. Added her mom: "He's just so laid back, nothing bothers him. And she's so happy — the most upbeat kid in the world."

Regarding the upcoming walk, Megale hopes it'll also raise awareness of SMA — a relatively unknown kid sister of muscular dystrophy. To her, every person who joins in this fund-raiser makes a huge difference.

As for Shea, she can hardly wait. "I'm definitely looking forward to it," she said. "It makes me feel happy that so many people come to this walk."