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ALS race draws families, community

By Johnathan Silver
March 7, 2015 at 10:30 p.m.

Wyatt Hassel, son of Rev. Bill Hassel, who was diagnosed with ALS eight years ago, leads the start of the 6th annual ALS Stroll, Roll 'n' Run at Riverside Park on Saturday.

Wyatt Hassel, son of Rev. Bill Hassel, who was diagnosed with ALS eight years ago, leads the start of the 6th annual ALS Stroll, Roll 'n' Run at Riverside Park on Saturday.   Scott Julian for The Victoria Advocate

"That's my boy."

The Rev. Bill Hassel directed his wheelchair toward the ALS Stroll, Roll 'n' Run finish point to watch as his son, Wyatt, was the first to return to that mark Saturday morning in Riverside Park. He was among dozens who ran, walked or used their wheelchairs to participate in the sixth year of the 5K race, which raises money to help local people with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The son, who has run for five years in the race and helped organize one year, said he does it to support his father.

"He means the world to me," said Wyatt Hassel, a Katy resident. "He's one of the best individuals I know. He's my best friend."

Saturday's race brought not only 5K participants, but families, memories and a commitment to eliminate a disease that affects the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord, and degenerates other parts of the body. The annual race has generated about $130,000 throughout the last five years. The pastor said he expects $30,000 to be raised this year, like the last two years.

"I'm so surprised every year," he said. "We are so blessed that people give like that."

There's more to the event than giving money, he added.

"It's not about the money," he said. "It's about the community."

The disease, which is fatal, initially gives most diagnosed people just a few years to live. About 6,000 people are diagnosed with the disease in the United States each year, and about 30,000 people are thought to have it at any given moment, according to the ALS Association.

"We're going to beat this thing someday, as long as we stick together," Wyatt Hassel said.

When he was diagnosed, the pastor expected to live only a few more years. The diagnosis came eight years ago. He's lived to see each race, which he organizes.

"I was supposed to be dead," he said. "I must be here to do more work."

It has been a tough journey, Wyatt Hassel said, but his father has been blessed with support from the community, he said.

"He's never been down about it," Wyatt Hassel said. "He's always happy about having the next day."

Austin resident Tamara Segura sees the same resilience in her mother, Carolyn Shimek, a Victoria woman who was diagnosed in 2005 with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Shimek, who has attended every year except in 2014, was in a van in the parking lot at the special events area in the park during the race. She is physically bound to an adjustable bed, blinks to answer yes and no, and uses a brain-computer interface to convey messages.

"It has been a roller coaster," she said via interface. "The downs are the times that allow you to grow, and the ups allow you to realize the struggle is worth it. The losses force you to find gains in other places. Family has been so supportive and a major part of my journey."

And it is part of a larger message, Shimek said she wants to share.

"It is important to understand in trying times your family is where you will find the most support," she said. "Keeping your family close and surrounding yourself with those that love you will keep your spirits up. I would like to thank my family, my extended family and St. Joseph family for all the support."

ALS has become more understood, thanks in part to the ice bucket challenge campaign, which has informed a new generation about the disease and is raising millions for the cause, Wyatt Hassel said.

"What they can't put a price tag on is all the people that were a part of it," he said.

Shimek's daughter, Brianna, who ran in the race, said the event is a community effort.

"You don't even know half the people out here, but they're here for this one cause, and that brings a unity between people that don't even know each other," the Austin resident said.

Brianna Shimek said her mother is a great source of support.

"Even though she's physically handicapped, she can do one thing that matters most in life, and that's love others."


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