Faith, hope, charity: hallmarks of a hero


Robert Varelli is happy he won Harford County's "Maryland, you are beautiful" award for unsung heroes. But the reason he is happy might surprise you. He is hoping the publicity will generate more interest and more donations for his favorite charitable causes.

And, during an interview at his Forest Hill Home, the causes are what Mr. Varelli wants to talk about, not himself.

This is the sixth year for the "Maryland, you are beautiful" program, which recognizes unsung heroes and heroines. County winners will compete for state champion in Annapolis.

Mr. Varelli jokes that he is a little perturbed the folks who nominated him, including the 2,000 members of the Bel Air United Methodist Church, forgot to mention his most recent charity -- Share.

Share stands for Self-Help and Resource Exchange.

The national program, run partly by Associated Catholic Charities, allows anyone to buy about $35 worth of food for $13 and two hours of volunteer labor.

Mr. Varelli says he decided in July to bring the program to Harford County after seeing its effects in Baltimore, where it started in May. About 32 local people participate in the program.

"My specialty is organizing people. I like to work behind the scenes," Mr. Varelli says.

He started the first soup kitchen in the county about four years ago. More than 100 people each week get free, hot lunches at Manna House, which operates through the Bel Air United Methodist Church.

He also works with Neighbors in Need, which matches needy families and individuals with donors, and the Adopt-A-Child program, which provides toys and clothes to children at Christmas.

el,.5l Mr. Varelli is concentrating on the 200 food baskets he wants to fill for the hungry at Thanksgiving. He needs chicken, canned goods, potatoes, onions and oranges.

"Last year I did 100 baskets but this year I'm determined to do 200," he says.

Mr. Varelli reels off prices he's memorized from the newspaper. He knows where the best bargains can be found on canned corn and hot dogs, on applesauce and tuna fish.

"Whatever is on sale I buy now, if I've got the money," he says.

The money will come, he says, from the Lord. "I do this for the Lord, I believe in the Lord, all my Christian friends help me. The Lord gives you what you reap and now he is helping me," he says.

Across the room, Linda Wehrmann's eyes filled with tears. Once a month she drives from her home in Westminster to help Mr. Varelli. Like other volunteers, she helps him with his charitable work.

She and other women take turns staying with him during the days his wife works.

Mr. Varelli, who has been married to his wife, Nancy, for 23 years and has two children, Jason, 18, and Jill, 15, needs help with day-to-day routine functions like feeding himself because he can't move his arms.

Mr. Varelli, 45, found out about a year ago that he has Lou Gehrig's disease. He believes he inherited it from his father.

"I couldn't get up from this couch without help," he says. He can barely lift his hands or move his legs.

But he is surprised anyone would suggest he might want to quit his charitable chores or even slow down.

"Of course I'm not going to stop. Why should I? I've got a phone don't I? As long as I can communicate in some way, I'll continue working," he says.

Technically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease destroys cells that are responsible for relaying messages to muscles throughout the body.

The disease got its popular name from the famed hitter on the New York Yankees baseball team whose life it claimed in 1941.

Most victims first experience weakness in the arms and legs, but ultimately are helpless to move, speak or swallow.

It afflicts 20,000 to 30,000 people in the United States, killing 5,000 each year.

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