Four years ago, Hedy Bluth woke up one morning and realized that she had gone completely blind.
"When she went to bed she was fine, but when she got up she couldn't see," said Lisa Samuels, Bluth's niece.
Bluth went in for some tests and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic, life-long disease that randomly attacks the central nervous system. The symptoms of multiple sclerosis come and go at random, and can range from tingling and numbness, to paralysis and blindness. While multiple sclerosis is neither fatal nor contagious, the exact cause of the disease is still unknown.
Prior to her aunt's diagnosis, McLean resident Lisa Samuels knew nothing about multiple sclerosis, but the disease's sudden and unexpected impact on a family member inspired her to do something she had never done before — become a volunteer. Not long after her aunt's diagnosis, Samuels heard a radio advertisement for the first ever National Multiple Sclerosis Society, National Capital Chapter three-day Challenge Walk. She immediately decided to become a participant.
"It was really the first time that I had ever volunteered or fund-raised for anything," said Samuels, who is currently 34.
Samuels raised the $2,500 required to participate in the event, and spent three days walking 50 miles with hundreds of other volunteers from all over the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The purpose of the walk is to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis while simultaneously raising money for research and local services. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are approximately 6,000 people living with multiple sclerosis in the Washington D.C. area.
"It was a very fulfilling experience," said Samuels. "I was volunteering for a cause I believed in, and it had a meaningful impact on someone in my family that I care about very much."
In fact, her initial volunteer experience was so rewarding that Samuels quickly became a regular volunteer at all of the Multiple Sclerosis Society National Capital Chapter events. In addition to her yearly participation in the three-day Challenge Walk, Samuels served as a crew member in the organization's annual bike tour, and participated in its one-day walk in the spring. Over the course of the last four years, Samuels has raised more than $6,600 for the National Capital Chapter.
"I've also participated in informational meetings, exhibited at trade shows, made phone calls, spoken to participants who need a helping hand, participated in their mentor program, helped volunteers stuff envelopes, and loaded and unloaded trucks," said Samuels. "If I have three hours to give, I give them a call and they find something for me to do ... I give time when I have time to give."
HER AUNT'S DIAGNOSIS is not the only factor that compels Samuels to continue with her volunteer efforts.
"I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and I have been very blessed with financial resources, so it feels good to be able to give back to those who are less fortunate," said Samuels. "If I were in this situation — God forbid — I would hope that somebody would volunteer on my behalf."
In December 2006, the National Capital Chapter recognized Samuels' outstanding volunteer and fund-raising work by making her the recipient of its 2006 Volunteer of the Year Award.
"I was totally flabbergasted," said Samuels. "I don't do what I do for recognition, I do it because it's the right thing to do — I was speechless."
Betsy O'Brien Anderson, vice president of development at the National Capital Chapter, said that the Chapter was "delighted" to recognize Samuels' "outstanding dedication."
"We greatly appreciate her long-term commitment," said Anderson.
Today, Samuels' aunt is living in New York and doing well.
"She has side effects with her therapy, but overall she has been very lucky," said Samuels. "She just loves that I volunteer and thinks it's cool that I do things for her even though she's my aunt and not my mother ... she just thinks it's the greatest thing that I do it in her name and her honor. She's touched by that."
The National Capital Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society will hold its 5th Anniversary MS Challenge Walk from Sept. 28-30 in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Locally, the Walk has raised $2.75 million since its inception.