GVSU fraternity to walk 160 miles to fight MS

GVL / Courtesy - Michael Surinck, ATO President

Michael Surinck

GVL / Courtesy – Michael Surinck, ATO President

Ashlyn Korienek

Frigid temperatures, frozen hands and a potential risk for injury are all risks of walking 160-miles in early March in Michigan. But for Grand Valley State University’s Alpha Tau Omega chapter, the risks are worth it to raise money for one cause: Multiple Sclerosis awareness.

For the fraternity members, the physical effects from their trek may only be temporary. However, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society states that more than 2.3 million people worldwide suffer from MS, and for them, the daily symptoms are not negotiable.

That’s why on March 4, ATO will send 20 brothers by foot to Traverse City, Michigan for the fourth annual ATO Walks Hard fundraiser. All proceeds will go to the Michigan chapter of the National MS Society.

The only catch? The walkers only have eight days to complete the challenge during GVSU’s spring break. The team starts at the Kirkhof Center around noon on Friday.

“Walk Hard is important to ATO Kappa Lambda because it proves that fraternities can make a positive difference on campus and around the community,” said Michael Surinck, ATO president. “One day, we hope ATO will be a reason that there’s an end to Multiple Sclerosis.”

Over the years, ATO has raised around $100,000 for the National MS Society. The goal for the 2015 walk was $35,000, which ended with $41,000 in total funds.

This year, the goal increased to $45,000. By Feb. 25, ATO raised $23,000, and by day one of ATO’s awareness week, which began Feb. 29, the total was already up to $28,000 — less than $17,000 away from their goal, Surinck said.

Tammy Willis, special events vice president for the National MS Society in Michigan, said their goal for 2016 is to invest $53.9 million into MS research, such as nervous system repair or wellness programs.

MS is an unpredictable central nervous system disease that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and body, with potential disabling effects. Willis said there is little information on the cause or a cure.

Events hosted by groups similar to ATO Walks Hard, she said, are important to the foundation’s ability to continue research. In Michigan, 86 cents to every dollar raised goes directly to support the mission.

“The help from ATO, and other similar programs, is immeasurable to us,” Willis said. “They raised around $40,000 last year, and I think they are on track to do that again. Many of the guys of ATO may not have connections to MS and that’s where my goal comes in, to provide them with the connections to see directly who they are helping and teach them our research.”

The majority of the trip takes place on the White Pine Trail, with an average distance each day of 20 miles.

The rest stops are in churches along the way, including: Comstock Park, Sand Lake, Big Rapids, Reed City, Tustin, Manton and Kingsley.

In addition, 10 support team members join the walkers for cases of injury, to cook food or bring any needed supplies on the trails.

“This event would not be possible without the help from them,” Surinck said. “They stay with the walkers in the church each night, and once the arrival in Traverse City is complete, the support team drives the walkers back to Allendale.”

Connor McDonald, recruitment chairman for ATO and second-year walker, said the main challenge is maintaining mental stamina and persevering through possible injuries to reach the ultimate goal.

“This involves more mentality than you’d expect,” he said. “You are waking up at 6 a.m., stretching, actually a couple of guys last year twisted their ankles. This can weigh us down, but we try to keep enthusiasm and motivate others to do the same.”

Quentin Callahan, ATO walk leader and third-year walker, said businesses throughout Grand Rapids sponsor the event including: Evolve Living Center, EPS Security Alarm Systems and Chase Creative Unlimited.

At the finish line, he said, supporters and National MS Society representatives wait for the results and congratulate their achievements. Afterward, the brothers celebrate at a hotel and rest for the evening.

“It’s nice to get together at the end to celebrate,” Callahan said. “During the eight days, our pain is only temporary, granted the conditions aren’t easy, but people with MS do this every day. We’re doing this to support someone who feels this pain throughout their entire life and to help find a cure.”

The fundraiser does not stop with the walk. ATO posts live updates on Twitter at @ATOWalksHard, and provides a donation website where funds can be collected.

From Feb. 29 to March 4, ATO is hosting their MS awareness week where donations can be collected from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m, located in the Kirkhof Center.