WESLEY CHAPEL — Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike Alstott joined more than 700 walkers and a mounted Pasco sheriff's posse Sunday at the fourth annual Hike for Hospice.
The 5K walk has gained popularity over four years thanks to the efforts of Linda Ward, who created the hike after her father died in hospice care. A short time after his death, she participated in a breast cancer awareness walk that led her to the idea for Hike for Hospice. Over the years, she and her fellow organizers have attempted to stage the event in different locations, but they have finally settled on Wesley Chapel District Park.
"In four years, we've raised over $300,000," Ward said. "Every year it gets a little better. The first year it was just in west Pasco, but the second year we wanted to get all of Pasco County involved. We had one in New Port Richey and one in Zephyrhills. I had a friend who flew helicopters so we actually flew Mike Alstott from the New Port Richey hike to the one in Zephyrhills. Last year, we decided to try to find a central location and we found this. This year, we fell just short of our goal of 1,000 hikers."
Among the 700 participants are people who have seen firsthand the benefits of hospice care. Marla Mayer has volunteered at Gulfside Regional Hospice for several years since her retirement and has experienced the pain that families at the facility experience.
"I think people look at the facility and it's so nice that they don't believe it could be a hospice," the 68-year-old Mayer said. "I've sat with the patients and families as they cope and I've seen the work that the hospice does and the appreciation of the people who need it. What is amazing is that no one ever gets a bill from the hospice. It wouldn't be possible without events like this."
Ward said the fundraising effort is easier as people become familiar with the Gulfside brand.
"We've got volunteers reaching out to local businesses,'' she said. "Thrift shops participate by taking $1 donations and act as signup locations. The thrift stores have raised over $6,000 by themselves. It's become more than a Gulfside signature event; it's a Pasco County signature event."
Many of the walkers on Sunday participated in honor of a lost loved one. Others simply heard about the event and were touched by its meaning. "I saw a flier for it outside of the preschool I work at," hiker Lisa Weiner said. "I've never known anybody that has needed hospice care, but I thought it was such a good cause that I might as well participate."