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Hope and Strength Light the Night

Over the next couple of months people around the area will be working to raise money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's annual Light the Night events, which are held throught the country.

The event, which started in 1999, is a time for survivors and supporters, friends and family to come together to raise money that will go towards researching a cure for blood cancers.

Among the people making preperations for this year's event is fifth-time walker and Ashburn resident, Carrie Holdcraft, mother of 6-and-half-year-old survivor, Leah.

Leah was diagnosed in 2001 at the age of 21 months with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL). Leah is just one of the nearly 4,000 new cases of ALL diagnosed each year. It is the most common type of leukemia for patients under 19.

It was her daughter's and her own experiences with leukemia that caused Holdcraft to reach out to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to help the cause and patients like Leah.

IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING her diagnosis, Leah began receiving chemotherapy and was responding to the treatment. Eighteen months into her treatment, however, Leah suffered a relapse.

"Honestly, every parent we have talked to agrees that a relapse is much more difficult," Carrie Holdcraft said.

She said that knowing what is in store for your child is often harder that not knowing.

"The second time you know what to expect; the first time you are learning as you go. When your child relapses it is as devastating as the first diagnosis was," she said.

Carrie Holdcraft said Leah's relapse meant more time spent in the hospital receiving inpatient care and a lot more waiting. After a stronger regimen of chemotherapy, Leah needed a bone marrow transplant. When neither of Leah's older sisters were exact matches, doctors and the family turned to the bone marrow registry and found 41-year-old Anthony Ficociello.

Ficociello, a father of three sons and three daughters living in Wisconsin, was a perfect match for Leah. Two years and two months after her original diagnosis, Leah underwent a bone marrow transplant. Two weeks later she her ALL went into remission.

"Everyone should be on the bone marrow registry," Carrie Holdcraft said.

Now Leah, a rising second grader who is home schooled by her mother, is a happy and healthy 6-year-old and Ficociello has become part of the Holdcraft family.

The two families met for the first time last summer at a press conference Ficociello attended with his wife and their youngest child. Their most recent reunion was over the Fourth of July when Leah and her parents were able to make a trip to Wisconsin.

"They are wonderful people," Carrie Holdcraft said. "They have become great friends."

HOLDCRAFT PARTICIPATED IN her first Light the Night walk in 2002. At the time the only events in the area were in Washington, D.C. and Reston. Although the event has moved into Loudoun County in the past three years, the Holdcraft family is so entrenched in the Reston walk they decided to stay.

"We started out in Reston," Carrie Holdcraft said, "we have a big team family out there."

Since the first year, the Holdcraft team has expanded to almost 100 members, consisting of family, friends and supporters who the family met through their church and the Children's Hospital.

This year, as team leader, Holdcraft's focus is on 20-25 dedicated walkers who help to raise funds for the event. In order to generate donations they send out requests through letters and e-mails. Individuals generally offer from $25 to $50 and many businesses have taken part as well, giving at least $250 for a mention as sponsor. While in earlier years this meant a spot on the team shirts, Holdcraft’s team will be issuing certificates and displaying them on a banner carried during the walk.

At the walk, Holdcraft's team will be joined by thousands of other walkers and Carrie Holdcraft predicts the Reston Town Center will be packed with people carrying banners and balloons. Symbolizing the blood cell counts crucial to blood cancers, survivors carry white balloons and supporters carry red. The balloons are also indicative of the many lives which cancers touch.

"A majority of the teams are walking for someone they know," Holdcraft said. "Either in honor of them or in memory of someone they've lost."

IN ADDITION TO soliciting donations, Holdcraft's team is raising money through an online auction. This year team member Kendall Sussman from Sterling is helping to organize the auction. Sussman first got involved with the Light the Night walk after meeting the Holdcrafts at their church.

"Her experience with her daughter made me want to do something," she said.

Offering donated gift cards from local businesses, various memberships, as well as some food and other items the team's auction has previously generated from $2,000-$3,000 towards its Light the Night total. Also being auctioned this year are advertising spots for businesses in local newspapers and publications. So far, Sussman herself has collected more than $700 in donations and other team members are doing just as well.

"We are really hoping it will be thousands of dollars [in donations] for the auction with a wide variety of items for people to bid on," she said.

Donations are being accepted for the auction until Sept. 1 when the bidding begins. After that, bidders can visit the Web site for item descriptions and viewing of the highest bid. The auction runs through Sept. 15, but nothing will be available for viewing until Sept. 1, Sussman said.

"We want to make sure everyone gets their first glance at the same time," she said. "To be fair."

After the bidding ends, prizes will be delivered to the winners courtesy of Holdcraft's team.

BEGINNING SEPT. 30, the Washington, DC area will be home to five different Light the Night walks. In addition to Reston and Washington, DC, supporters will be walking in Prince William County, Montgomery County, Md. and Leesburg.

The walk in Ida Lee Park on Oct. 14 is the third Light the Night event held in Loudoun County. Previously held in South Riding, the switch of venues allows for a more child-friendly atmosphere. Light the Night campaign director Michelle Tennison said they are hoping to have around 1,500 people participate, a large jump from last year's 800 person attendance.

"Our goal is to raise about $175,000 with this event," Tennison said. "Our overall goal for the five events is $2 million."

Last year, the Loudoun walk brought in $125,000 and the five events brought in around $1.7 million, Tennison said.

The event will have entertainment before and after the walk, including a band, clown, open fire-truck and number of children’s games.

Each year Light the Night chooses honored walkers, Tennison said, to help raise awareness of the reality of blood cancers.

"We just want to spotlight a story," Tennison said.

This year's Loudoun honored walkers are Andrew Hughes from Chantilly, Va. who was diagnosed with ALL in December 2004 when he was three and Livia Klescova, 27, who was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia in February 2005.

All funds raised by teams participating in Light the Night go directly towards the Society's mission to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and myeloma.

"The money was funneled into research grants and patient services," Tennison said, speaking of the $29 million Light the Night events made nationwide in 2005. "We do a lot of reaching out to families to get them the information and support they need."

The society's commitment to defeating blood cancers in adults and children is one of the main reasons that families like the Holdcrafts are so dedicated to their mission.

"We have a dream that one day every kid with cancer can be guaranteed a cure and our hope and prayer would be that one day families would never have to go through what Leah has with childhood cancer," Carrie Holdcraft said. "So that's why we walk. We walk for a cure."