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Opinion Shapers

Steve Unger

At some point in our lives — or perhaps at several different points — the vast majority of us have had to face the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” A few lucky people such as Prince William or Paris Hilton pretty much know from an early age (or they don’t need to care), but most of us have had to struggle with a good answer.

My dream was to become a philanthropist. I always thought it would be fun to have a whole lot of money and then just give chunks of it away to deserving people and causes — like the character John Beresford Tipton used to do on the old TV series, “The Millionaire.”

However, my realities of middle-class life and raising a family changed that plan. Although there are countless worthwhile charities and fund-raising efforts I’d love to support, they now have to share the list with the utility and insurance companies, the mortgage, the grocers and on and on.

Yet like most good people I know, you find a way to contribute to the organizations closest to your heart . . . the ones fighting to spare other people the kinds of pain you’ve felt in your own life. Cancer. Lupus. Birth Defects. Autism. It’s a long list.

A favorite cause at our house is MS, which stands for Multiple Sclerosis. MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the fibers in a person’s central nervous system, often manifesting itself as numbness or weakness. The “multiple” refers to sites in the body where the disease attacks, such as the brain, eyes, spine, etc. Scientists don’t know what causes MS, and there’s no cure. Nearly half a million Americans have some form of the condition, including more than 7,000 people in the St. Louis area. One of them is my wife.

I constantly meet people who know somebody with MS — a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker — and each has a unique perspective. MS is like that. It’s a stupid, capricious disease that affects every victim differently. Some sufferers barely ever know they have it; others wind up in wheelchairs and have to quit their jobs. Several aspects of Multiple Sclerosis are consistent though, such as chronic fatigue and patients’ extreme sensitivity to heat. Couples facing MS have an exceptionally high divorce rate.

The issue has been given some high-profile attention over the years. A few decades ago, former teen heartthrob and original Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who died Monday, announced she had MS and subsequently became an active spokesperson. More recently, the actress Teri Garr has waged a public fight with her Multiple Sclerosis and was named a National Ambassador for the MS Society. The character of the president on "The West Wing" was given MS by his scriptwriters, which may have boosted awareness of the disease.

Because so many people’s lives have been touched by Multiple Sclerosis, a lot of money has been donated by individuals and organizations to support the fight against MS. In addition to funding ongoing medical research and development, the money provides valuable equipment and personal assistance for MS patients. But it’s not enough. Hundreds of regional fund-raising events are held every year, such as the “MS150 Bike Race” and various “MS Walks,” and that season is now upon us.

The St. Louis area hosts several MS Walks, and one of the biggest is this Sunday, April 14, in Forest Park. Starting at 1 p.m. at the upper Muny parking lot, participants can join in either a one-mile or three-mile trek, ideally raising dollars with every step. Walkers typically solicit friends and family members to pledge money to sponsor them.

The Forest Park MS Walk has raised over $10 million since it was first held in 1988, but this year, contributions are lagging way behind the goal. If somebody hits you up for a donation, please say yes.

Better yet, be proactive and make a pledge through the MS Society’s website. You can visit nationalmssociety.org and go through the “Chapters” menu to see what’s going on in St. Louis (the Gateway Chapter). Besides a number of MS Walks in coming weeks, there are dinners, a trivia contest and more, including a wild event known as “Muckfest” on May 18. Those efforts have contributed to some real progress in MS treatments and medications.

It’s tough choosing where to spend your money, but it gets easier when you know your dollars are making a difference in the lives of people around you. Thanks to all of you who get involved!

Steve Unger has been professionally writing for 30-plus years to help companies sell stuff. His Journal columns are a labor of love to salute the people, places and charm of St. Louis. If you’d like to share a memory of St. Louis or just drop him a line, he can be reached at stevethewordguy@aol.com.