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Youngsters put best foot forward

The Baltimore Sun

In several groups of about 100 each, students at Southampton Middle School filed out to the field beside the school.

Dressed in tank tops, T-shirts and shorts, the students did warm-up exercises before walking around the designated course. Despite temperatures pushing 90 and high humidity, Jay Delgado bounded around the field.

"This is a good activity, because it gives me a chance to come out here and run," said the 13-year-old seventh-grader. "It's also good because we are raising money to help kids go to college."

Delgado was one of about 800 sixth- and seventh-graders at Southampton Middle who helped raise more than $6,500 in a schoolwide fundraiser to benefit the Carson Scholars Fund Inc., a nonprofit organization created in 1994 by pediatric neurologist Benjamin Carson and his wife, Candy. Money will be collected through Wednesday.

Through the scholarship program, children in grades four through 11 with at least a 3.75 grade point average are awarded $1,000 scholarships that are invested in a trust until the students begin college at a four-year institution.

The walkathon is part of a newly initiated Ambassadors program started in the spring by the Carson Scholars Fund, said Amy Warner, executive director of the nonprofit group.

"We have a goal that will require a multibillion-dollar endowment, and there aren't any foundations with that type of money that I know of," Warner said. "We started the Ambassadors program to reach out to the community in helping us reach our goal."

The fund also receives money from grants and sponsors, Warner said.

In 1996, $31,000 was awarded, and by 2007, $2,824,000 in cumulative awards had been given to more than 2,800 students in 16 states and Washington, D.C., according to the fund's annual report.

Judy Fida, one of nine ambassadors for the organization, coordinated the walkathon.

She met Ben Carson in 2000 when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Carson was recommended to her, but she later learned he was a pediatric neurologist. However, the two became friends.

To reach his dream of awarding a scholarship to one student in every school in the United States, Carson sent a letter to volunteers and supporters, seeking motivated people to help raise money for the foundation, said Fida, of Abingdon.

She signed up to hold a walkathon.

"I thought when you follow your dreams, you fulfill your heart," said Fida, who has worked as a teacher's assistant at Southampton Middle for the past 13 years. "I have the same heart and mission to touch lives as Dr. Carson."

To get the walkathon under way, Fida wrote a letter to the parents of sixth- and seventh-graders. She attached a pledge sheet and a list of the prizes the students could win, such as an autographed baseball and photograph of Cal Ripken Jr., and a family fun pack that includes four movie passes, a game of miniature golf for four and a gift certificate to Pizza Hut.

About eight teams of 95 to 100 students each walked for 45 minutes in a field behind the school, Fida said. The money raised will go into a fund that will be used to award scholarships to Southampton students, Fida said.

Teachers at the school signed on to help Fida. Janet Petrilli, a seventh-grade science teacher, said, "Judy is an amazing person. This is a huge undertaking, but she managed to put it all together."

In some cases, the walkathon gave students hope that money might be available for them when they go to college, Jessica Canami said.

"It's fun to get out here and walk," said the 13-year-old seventh-grader. "But it's really cool to know that there are people out there raising money to help kids like me to go to college."

For other students, the walkathon was a chance to make a difference, said Joey Santiago, 13 also a seventh-grader.

"I feel good about raising money," he said. "But it's really neat to get to make a difference for kids like Dr. Ben Carson does every day. He makes me want to come out here and run."

For at least one student, the walkathon was a way to give back to the man who saved his life.

Sixth-grader Craig Ettinger knows firsthand what Carson can do.

He was born with a bone sticking out the back of his head, and the neurologist removed it, the 11-year-old said.

"I wanted to come out here and walk to say thank you," he said. "Without that operation, I would have died."

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