IMSA partners with Project A. L. S. in support of a beloved principal
Denise Crosby email@example.com September 25, 2012 5:28PM
Stephanie Pace Marshall
HOW TO HELP
What: “Lap the Lake” picnic and Fun Run to raise funds for Project A.L.S and the McLaren family college savings fund.
When: 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Blackberry Farm.
Highlights: Live music by Red Woody; food and beverages by Reuland’s Catering available for purchase; raffles; fun family activities.
Cost: $40; children 18 and under, $25. Cash and check only at the door.
Donations to the McLaren Family Fund can also be made at any Old Second Bank location.
Updated: October 27, 2012 6:08AM
As soon as she saw him sitting in the front row of the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, Stephanie Marshall made a bee-line for the famous actor/comedian.
Marshall, founding president and now president emeritus for the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, apologized to Ben Stiller for not having seen any of his popular but sophomoric movies. She was, however, a huge fan for a far different reason. And on that September day two years ago, she was desperate to talk to him.
In addition to his talents as a creative producer/director and zany entertainer, Stiller is a humanitarian and philanthropist on many levels. But the cause nearest to his heart is Project A.L.S., established by his close friend Jenifer Estess and her sisters, after Estess was diagnosed with this fatal motor neuron disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS affects an estimated 350,000 people worldwide, with about 50 percent of people dying within three years of its onset. In the motor disease, people progressively lose muscle strength until they become paralyzed and can no longer move, speak, swallow and breathe.
Estess, a New York theater producer, died in 2008. But her family, along with a large circle of friends in the entertainment business that included Stiller, turned the organization into a force to be reckoned with — by bringing together the world’s best research scientists and clinicians to work together toward finding a cure for this killer disease.
Stephanie Marshall needed to help that cause. And fast.
Only days earlier, Eric McLaren, the beloved principal of IMSA, told her he’d recently been diagnosed with ALS. He insisted on tackling this challenge as privately as possible. But Marshall, like so many who love and respect Eric and his wife Kim, was not about to let the horrible disease claim another victim without putting up a fight. A quick Google search revealed Stiller as a prominent face of the disease. And when she saw the actor at the CGI meeting in 2010, she didn’t hesitate.
“I need your help,” she told Stiller, “and I need it fast.”
The seed for the IMSA-Project A.L.S. Partnership was planted that night; and since then it has quietly — with little fanfare — grown closer and stronger, even as McLaren’s health has declined.
A couple months after Marshall introduced herself to Stiller, Jenifer’s sister Valerie Estess, who is cofounder and director of research for Project A.L.S., was keynote speaker at an IMSA fundraiser. Six months later, she spoke again at the school’s ALS Awareness Night, along with Dr. Kevin Eggan, associate professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University. The event raised more than $60,000 for the McLaren Family Research Fund at Project A.L.S, and another $20,000 for the IMSA’s CADHA fund (Cure a Dreaded Human Ailment). It’s funding that has helped IMSA students like Vivian Zhang do research at the Jenifer Estess Laboratory for Stem Cell Research in New York. And currently, IMSA senior Sarah Martin is involved in a part-time internship in ALS work at the University of Chicago.
“Dr. McLaren’s courage has inspired me,” said Martin, of Alsip, who is applying to colleges that specialize in research. “And I’m drawing on that courage through him to do whatever I can to help find a cure. My entire life goal is to accomplish that.”
This enthusiasm is an example of the passion within IMSA’s walls that have added new fire to the school’s mission statement: to ignite and nurture creative, ethical, scientific minds that advance the human condition.” One example: The school’s Robotics Team built an artificial arm that helped McLaren feed himself after the disease stripped away that function we all take for granted.
It’s not just been IMSA working on behalf of McLaren. New England Congregational Church, where he served as the chief layperson, along with friends and neighbors, have stepped up efforts, including a trio of close friends who will run in the New York Marathon in November to raise money for ALS research. And now this close-knit network, which up until now has working furiously but privately, welcomes your involvement.
On Sunday, from 4 to 7 p.m., the community is invited to the “Lap the Lake” fundraiser for Project A.L.S. at Blackberry Farm that will feature a picnic and run for all ages. McLaren, who now relies on round-the-clock nursing care in his Sugar Grove home and a ventilator to breathe, plans to attend the event, along with Valerie Estess.
If you get the chance to meet this man, you will understand my own enthusiasm for this cause. Also in Sunday’s Beacon-News, you can read more about Eric McLaren’s journey — an amazing tale of love, courage, hope and, as his middle son Tyler says, lots of “positivity.”
“This thing,” said Marshall in a telephone interview on her way to this year’s CGI, “has turned out to be bigger than life.”
She pauses for only a moment before adding, “It is life.”