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100-Mile March on Richmond

Area man treks to state capitol, advocating for those with disabilities.

While many volunteers would be willing to go the extra mile for the cause they supported, how many would be willing to walk an extra 100 miles along Route 1 all the way to Richmond?

That's what Mark Brobston, a case manager and client advocate for The Arc of Northern Virginia, is doing as he walks from The Arc's Falls Church office to Richmond for Saturday's Arc MArcH. Through his 100-mile trek to Virginia Capitol Bell Tower, Brobston is advocating for increased funding for programs that serve those with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

"Originally, we were just trying to expand on the rally in Richmond," said Brobston, an avid walker and hiker who has conquered the Appalachian Trail.

"We were talking about it, and starting thinking about how a hiker walking without supporters along the way would be very symbolic of the difficulties faced by those with disabilities," said Nancy Mercer, executive director of The Arc's Falls Church office.

The MArcH on Richmond is a biennial event with the goal of "educating the legislative body and making sure we're included in the budget for next year," Mercer said. "It has evolved into a civil rights march. People with disabilities find it very difficult to live in our communities."

By walking the 100 miles from Falls Church to Richmond, stopping along the way to meet with Arc chapters and sleep in campgrounds, Brobston "will show what people can accomplish with the support of others," Mercer said.

Brobston's biggest concerns being "traffic, weather and exhaustion," he said he's certain to draw some attention from drivers along the way. "I'm sure I'll look really out of place not only walking down Route 1 but with a big old pack on my back."

Brobston is carrying all his "bare bones" needs in a hiking backpack, "just a sleeping bag and tent," with plans of stopping to rest and eat along the way, he said.

"I just want to increase the awareness of the needs of people with disabilities," Brobston said. "I want to show them that people are willing to open their hearts and help out."

PROGRAMS FOR The Arc's clients are "funded even less than programs for people with mental retardation," Mercer said, part of the inspiration for the MArcH this weekend.

"We don't think the state feels they have the funding to help us," she said. "There are currently over 200 people in Fairfax County that are on the wait list for funding, aid and services that we can't provide without additional funding."

In its 43 years of existence in Northern Virginia, The Arc's focus has shifted from being a support group for parents with mentally ill children who wanted to keep their children at home into an organization that "wants to fix a system that is underfunded," Mercer said. "If the system isn't fixed soon, people will start to get hurt."

Without funding, she said, programs will not have the ability to hire or retain competent, skilled workers to provide care and assistance to mentally ill or developmentally disabled clients.

"They should be a priority, right along with schools, fire, police and the like," she said.

Acknowledging that "Virginia is woefully lacking in trails," Brobston said he's walking along Route 1 because it is the most direct route. The trek, which he is making with two friends and fellow hikers he met along the Appalachian Trail, should last until Friday night, when they arrive in Richmond, the night before the rally.

"I just hope the drivers along Route 1 have a lot of sleep next week," he laughed.

"I commend him for doing this," said Paul Steele, executive director of the state's Arc Association. "I don't believe anyone's walked like this before."

While Steele said he's "not surprised" one of The Arc's staff members is "so passionate" about their fight, he admitted that "it takes a lot of wherewithal to walk that far."

The rally is "our way of letting the lawmakers and government know the needs of people with disabilities," Steele said. "We need continued support. We have families on urgent care waiting lists. Families are overburdened because they need help with support services and they have housing needs that have to be addressed. We need the state to add new Medicaid waiver slots for families on the urgent care waiting lists and increase the Medicare payment aid by 20 percent, to cover 100 percent of the poverty rate," Steele said.

To raise the Medicaid payment by 20 percent would allow service providers to hire better trained workers, he said, who are paid out of the amount of Medicaid funding provided.

At the rally in Richmond, Steele said he expects to see between 1,000 and 2,000 people, some in wheelchairs and others walking, to do their best to draw the attention of lawmakers.

WHEN BROBSTON left Falls Church Sunday morning, he was not alone. Kurt Siefken and Mark Daniel, of Colorado and Georgia respectively, met Brobston when hiking the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2003.

"We walked the last 1,200 miles together,"

Siefken said. What he's learned about The Arc from Brobston, along with his love of a good, long walk, encouraged him to join his friend on the journey.

"Mark told me a lot about the people he works with and his clients and I think this is a great idea," Siefken said. No stranger to charity walks himself, he said he hiked 500 miles and raised $1,000 earlier this summer for America's Second Harvest.

Daniel had flown down from Maine Saturday to join Brobston and Siefken for the walk, and the men had walked almost 11 hours and covered about 20 miles in their first day before stopping for the night at Pohick Bay Regional Park in Lorton.

"The day after tomorrow, we'll be glad to have more padded earth to walk on," Daniel said, his muscles sore from the combined stress of walking with a heavy pack on unforgiving pavement after completing a mountain hike a few weeks ago.

The men had talked about The Arc as they walked Sunday, Brobston giving his friends more information about the organization they were supporting while hiking.

"We've had five or six people stop us today to ask us what we're doing," said Daniel, adding that the three men stood out with their large backpacks and walking sticks. "We've raised awareness today. If the three of us can do this and it can effect someone along the way who can make a change, it'll all be worth it."

During their first day of walking, the transition between rural and suburban settings led to some observations.

"There are way too many 7-Eleven's and McDonalds out there," Siefken laughed, shaking his head.

When they arrive at the rally in Richmond on Saturday, they hope to see some of the 25 people who were behind them when they left Sunday morning, and maybe some they've met along the way.

"If one person at the rally looks up at you smiling or says something nice, that'd be the reward for this hike," said Daniel said. "Not that we're doing this to be appreciated, but seeing the way this will effect people makes the trip worthwhile."