Last October, Marty Gregoire of South Buffalo ran a local 5K road race for a 5-year-old girl from Ireland named Casey Fitzgerald. He put a photo of her on his running bib, and he collected pledges, eventually raising about 400 euros that helped pay for the young girl’s surgical procedure.
Gregoire still hasn’t met the girl. But they share a strong bond.
Both have cerebral palsy. Specifically, spastic diplegia.
In that same race, the 2011 Dash for Dad, Gregoire’s running shirt bore the names of 83 young people who also have cerebral palsy.
He’s run almost one 5K race per month since 2005, about 75 races in all, raising money – and plenty of awareness – for people with CP.
“I run because I can,” he said. “When I get tired, I remember others with cerebral palsy who can’t run, and I run harder for them. I know they would do the same for me.”
At age 37, the youngest of 16 children, Gregoire has a cause: reaching out to kids with CP and their families, whether they live in West Seneca, Buffalo, St. Louis or the United Kingdom.
With the help of some friends and family members, Gregoire also has incorporated a not-for-profit agency called Footsteps of Western New York.
“Our goal is to help people with cerebral palsy, to pay for devices, equipment and therapy, so they gain or regain mobility,” he said.
Footsteps already has raised more than $20,000, and there’s no shortage of need. The Footsteps website notes that the average person with cerebral palsy spends about $921,000 over a lifetime for equipment, therapy, medical care and necessary lifestyle changes.
Gregoire, who works in social media and marketing for Orville’s Appliances, has his own running group, Team OMFAA (Often Mistaken For Actual Athletes), and he usually gets the same question at the monthly starting line: “Whom are we running for today?”
Last October, the answer was Casey Fitzgerald, whose only dream has been to dance and walk independently.
“What’s more innocent than a kid who wants to dance?” Gregoire asked. “Kids with CP or any other form of disability, they have big dreams, high hopes, big expectations, just like everyone else. They want to get on a school bus with their friends, walk across a campus or, to fast-forward, get down the aisle on their wedding day.”
The 400 euros raised for Casey helped pay for the same surgical procedure Gregoire had in St. Louis Children’s Hospital, a revolutionary spinal procedure to help relieve some of their muscle spasticity.
“I may never meet her,” he said. “That’s the power of it, when you can change someone’s world and never expect them to repay you. Just hearing about her progress and how she’s doing is payback enough.”
Gregoire has become a lightning rod for families dealing with CP, both through Footsteps and after having told officials in the St. Louis hospital to refer families to him.
Sometimes families just want to talk. There also are tangible needs. Footsteps already has received applications for funds from an 8-year-old Depew boy who needs a safer walker costing $800; from a 10-year-old Cheektowaga boy who needs a $4,000 transport stroller; and from people who need $90 shoe lifts or custom orthotics or physical therapy sessions after insurance payments run out.
Gregoire has no specific goals and no way to measure how much he’s accomplished.
“If we help one kid, we’ve done it,” he said.
“If we help 1,000 kids, we’ve done it. And if we just develop awareness about CP and connect families with similar situations so they can lean on each other, we’ve done it. It’s not so much a charity. It’s a recognition of a need.”
Gregoire knows how lucky he is, and he points to the way he was raised. Born two months premature and weighing less than 5 pounds, he was diagnosed at age 2 with CP that is considered mild by medical standards.
As a young boy, he never used the term cerebral palsy. When other kids asked why he walked funny, he said he was born that way, with one leg bigger than the other one.
Now he uses the term CP.
“It doesn’t define who I am, but it’s part of who I am,” he said.
As the youngest of 16 children of David and Marcella Gregoire, he wasn’t babied or sheltered.
Even though he physically couldn’t put his left heel down, whenever he played outside, his sisters would yell at him to put it down.
“Growing up, because I wasn’t coddled, I wasn’t afraid to try,” he said. “Good things happen when you try.”
Gregoire graduated from West Seneca West High School and then the University of Evansville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business. He’s also been a college admissions officer and ran an assisted-living facility before returning to Orville’s.
Now he wants to give others the same chances he’s gotten.
“I just want to give people hope and a reason to believe in themselves,” he said.
“The greatest thing you can give anyone is a chance. So many people have given me hope and a chance.
“It’s time to pay it forward.”