Growing up in Camp Hill, Pa., which lies across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Peter Della-Croce was a natural athlete who excelled at running cross-country and track.
His childhood was typical of a close-knit family with small-town values except for one thing: His older brother John was born with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
With the mind of a 5-year-old, John, who is 44 and lives with his parents, still believes in Santa Claus. Over the years, he has had a profound impact on Della-Croce’s world view.
“My older brother has been the most significant influence on my life,” says Della-Croce, who is 37 and the third of four siblings. He has worked as a financial adviser in wealth management at Merrill Lynch in Columbia since graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1999 with a degree in finance.
“John is an incredible person who has helped make me what I am today,” he says. “And my relationship with him has helped me to become more patient in my own life.”
Training for a triathlon seven years ago, Della-Croce was biking every Saturday morning past the Homewood Road offices of The Arc of Howard County, a nonprofit organization committed to achieving full community life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He decided to contact The Arc to volunteer in John’s honor and soon joined its resource development committee.
Chatting one day in 2008 with Columbia Triathlon Association founder and fellow Arc supporter Rob Vigorito, Della-Croce says they began brainstorming creative ways to reach new donors.
The idea of tapping into the local pool of multisport athletes sprang to mind. The concept of Team Embrace -- a group of athletes who raise funds for The Arc by pledging $1,000 to participate in endurance races -- was born that day.
Making a pledge guarantees a spot in a race, which can be hard to come by in the case of the wildly popular Columbia Triathlon, and provides access to a coach who develops specialized training for all Team Embrace competitors.
“That allows for people across the full spectrum of athletic ability, including Special Olympics athletes, to be a part of our team,” Della-Croce says. And that diversity, in turn, makes for “a very motivated and inspiring group of people.”
Steve Otten, who works in the same Merrill Lynch department as Della-Croce and participates in Team Embrace, says he admires his colleague’s passion and dedication to the cause.
“You can tell when someone is looking to do something for personal gain, and Peter isn’t doing this for the accolades,” Otten says. “It takes an incredible amount of know-how and commitment to do what he does. It’s pretty awesome.”
Participation has grown swiftly since the group’s inaugural year, when three people turned out for the first event. Now in its sixth year, Team Embrace includes 49 competitors and has raised more than $100,000 since its inception.
Though he works 50 to 60 hours a week, Della-Croce also maintains a black belt in karate and spends hours training as a triathlete. Participating in the Ironman World Championship along the rugged Kona Coast of Hawaii remains one of the goals on his “bucket list.”
When he’s not training, he’s attending the varsity soccer games of his two stepdaughters, Abbey, 16, and Hannah, 14, with Robyn, his wife of one year. The girls attend Liberty High School, near the family’s home in Sykesville.
Somehow he also makes time to study and collect French wine and jokes that he has 100 bottles that he “can’t drink for 20 years.”
Even with all of those important commitments, Team Embrace remains a priority for Della-Croce.
“Before I founded Team Embrace, I realized I was at a point in my career where I wanted to make a deeper connection to the philanthropic community,” he says. “Now, the hours I spend volunteering are very important to me.”
Carol Beatty, executive director of The Arc, expresses her admiration for Della-Croce, who serves on her board of directors.
“Endurance racing is a real passion for Peter, and he was able to take his love for that sport and turn it into a way to raise funds,” Beatty says.
“And he’s introducing people to The Arc who wouldn’t have necessarily known about us,” she notes. “Once they come to us through that door, they become supporters and that’s what we need.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun