A wide range of emotions — ranging from elation to somber reflection— were on display for former Baltimore area TV weatherman Justin Berk and his team of four cyclists as they rolled into the Eldersburg on Wednesday afternoon.
It was the fourth day of Berk's Trek Across Maryland, a seven day, 321-mile journey from McHenry in Garrett County to Ocean City to raise money for the Cool Kids Campaign, a nonprofit which supports children with cancer and their families. In Eldersburg, there was the elation at reaching the midway point and having already raised more than $17,000.
There was also the satisfaction of returning to Carroll, where Berk said people have always been major supporters of his school-based fundraisers for Cool Kids. Also there was relief because of the cooler air and smoother terrain. The group had hiked and biked across and through rugged and muggy mountains since they left the Wisp Resort in McHenry on Sunday.
At the same time, members of the group were mindful of the challenge faced by the children who would benefit from their journey, and reflected on their memories of common friend Shawn Madden, the owner of the Gold's Gym in Eldersburg, who passed away from heart disease last year.
"Coming out of the mountains into his fresh air today, into Carroll county, it's honestly a gift," Berk said. "Carroll County has been so supportive of our school campaign and it happens to be the heart of our route ... for the heart of my friend Shawn, whose heart gave out even though he had the biggest heart of anybody."
Berk dedicated Wednesday's portion of the Trek to Madden, but each of the other days is dedicated to one of the children who the Cool Kids Campaign has helped.
Among those children is 5-year-old Claire Russell, of Fort Meade, who completed 10 bouts of chemotherapy and had four ribs removed to fight Ewing's Sarcoma. She was declared cancer free on May 22.
There's also 11-year-old Jaidan Richardson, whose recurrent fevers beginning at 18-months turned out to be lymphoblastic leukemia. He has been cancer free for three years.
"We provide social and academic support for kids with cancer," said Sharon Perfetti, co-founder and executive director of Cool Kids. "We can't help medically and we don't put money into research, but we identify various needs that the child and the whole family may have and we build our programs around that."
The Cool Kids Campaign sends care packages to children in the hospital, offers full family mentoring and operates a learning center where children can keep up academically despite the extreme disruptions in their lives. There is also a "mommy and me" preschool program for very young children with cancer.
"It's about improving the livelihood of these kids that are fighting cancer and maintaining their childhood because some of these kids, for lack of a better term, turn into pin-cushions, and they should be kids," Berk said. "I think the positive outlook is as important as the medicine. Especially for a kid, to maintain their childhood while they are going through this is the most important thing."
Berk knows this from personal experience. When he was 14 and in the midst of a an active athletic early life, playing baseball and running track, he developed a pain in his left leg that was initially diagnosed as cancer. His doctors wanted to amputate.
"My parents did not want to do that. They found someone who realized it was a staph infection, which is just as bad. It was in my bone," Berk said. "I was in the hospital for nearly two months, just trying to get healthy."
Berk kept his leg, despite a scare when he developed an allergy to penicillin, and would recover and return to running track, but the social and emotional load of those months of hospitalization stayed with him.
"I didn't have a mobile device to play on or to keep in touch. My hospital TV had maybe 3-4 channels on it and there are only so many times you can read a magazine. It was very boring and isolating and still not knowing if I was going to walk right when I got out of there."
Last year, Berk said, the numbers just seemed to align: He was 41-years-old and his hospitalization happened when he was 14; it had been 27 years and two times seven is 14; it was 2014 and the length of his career on TV in Baltimore had been, of course, 14 years.
"I figured it was time for me to do a reflection back on my 'bonus time,' if you will," Berk said.
Social media had allowed Berk to maintain a sizable following after retiring from TV news, keeping the communication of the science of weather at the center of his livelihood, and he realized that presented an opportunity to do something for others on a larger scale.
"I felt this obligation to do something with it," he said. "I feel this obligation that I have been given this gift for a reason and last year it turned out that [the Trek] was my purpose."
By the time Berk completed his inaugural solo Trek last year, he was so ecstatic that he immediately began thinking of turning it into an annual event and inviting others to join him.
"If I could have bottled up what was in my veins last year and sold it, I would have made a fortune. The closest thing I could come to doing that was to share the experience with other people," he said. "It was my personal journey as much as everything last year, but having this grow into something bigger gives it a life of it's own."
Joining Berk on Wednesday just for the day were Susan Krieger and Tabi Chriswell, who were friends of Madden and rode with the group to honor his memory. Wayne Hydorn and Sandy MacIver had signed up for the whole Trek.
Hydorn, a cyclist from Hampstead said he learned of the opportunity to join Berk through Twitter, and while he had not been aware of the Cool Kids Campaign before, he was happy to add to the critical mass of people involved.
"It's nice when more people get involved," he said. "It snowballs from there."
MacIver had begun volunteering at the Cool Kids Campaign headquarters in Towson in January and helping to put together the care packages for the children was inspiring for MacIver. She began to look for more ways to contribute beyond the level of volunteering that she had already engaged in.
That's when she heard Berk was going to hold a second Trek and he would be inviting others to join him.
"Instantly I thought, 'Wow, what a great opportunity that would be," MacIver said. "You reach a certain point in your life where you want to give back. You want to do something to try to have an impact and help others. I guess I am at that point in my life, so I was like, 'I have to get involved. I have to do that.'"
"I signed up and said, you know what, I will get myself in shape both physically and mentally, because this is a mental challenge as well," she said. "You have got to have that thought process of saying you can do it, you can get up every day and you can push your body to the limit."
Finding that limit and pushing against it is as much a part of the spirit of the Trek as the fundraising and the honoring those who cannot leave their hospital bed with vicarious movement according to Berk.
"Part of pushing yourself to the physical limit, there really is some epiphany that you reach," he said. "I hit that last year going up the mountain at Sidling Hill."
Crawling up the side of a mountain with his legs burning, Berk said he had a moment where he simply could not pedal any further, but looked down to find his legs were still pumping, that he could not stop.
Neither can the children the Cool Kids Campaign helps.
"If we can push ourselves to that physical limit, that stressful limit, that is the closet we can come to these kids that are going through chemo," he said. "Some of these are kids that were not supposed to make it and they are [making it]. There are other kids that are still going through that battle."
To contribute to the trek for the Cool Kids Campaign or to learn more about what it offers, go to coolkidscampaign.org.