Run, walk and cheer — Sunday, April 30 at Merwin Meadows will see the return for the ninth time of Circle of Care’s 5K, an annual spring race to support families of children with a cancer diagnosis.

The CARE to Run 5K will kick off at 9 a.m., and will feature an after-race tailgate with a DJ, Wilton Deli sandwiches and College Creamery for dessert, plus a survivors tent. Runners can participate either in person that morning, on a looping course that goes to Allen’s Meadow and heads back to Merwin – or virtually.

Circle of Care is an almost 20-year-old Wilton-based organization dedicated to providing non-medical support for families in Connecticut from the day of cancer diagnosis to a year after treatment. The only organization in Connecticut to do so, the non-profit fills a gap by addressing families’ changing economic, emotional and social needs as they navigate often years-long treatment.

The 5K co-chair is Kacky Theoharides, whose daughter Lyla, is a cancer survivor. An avid runner, she has been organizing the race for eight years and said the 5K seemed like the perfect way to give back to the organization that had emotionally supported her family during that time.

“They were amazing for us,” Theoharides said. “I naturally just kind of fell into working with them and particularly with the 5K … It’s something that I believe in and love and want to help these families as much as we can.”

Theoharides won’t be running this year due to an injury, but as in other years, her whole family will be involved. Her son August and his college fraternity run in Hartford, and another son Christian runs at school too. And her younger children Owen and Lyla volunteer based on what is needed, while her husband, Phil, is “always there for manual labor.”

“Everyone gets involved,” she said. “And my extended family too, my nieces and nephews and siblings.”

People who register can fundraise as a team or as an individual, with incentives for committing to raising $1,000, $2,500, and $5,000, and prizes are available for the top three fundraising teams.

“What’s better than supporting families in Connecticut?” Theoharides said. “No one ever regrets running in a 5K, especially for an amazing cause.”

Friendraising, not just Fundraising

Elizabeth (Liz) Salguero, the co-executive director and co-founder of Circle of Care, whose son Carlos is a cancer survivor, said the 5K is a staple event for the non-profit.

“The 5K is so much fun because it is a community-based, community-driven family fun event,” Salguero said. “Fundraising is an important part of that but also just raising awareness about the programs that we offer, and how if you happen to know somebody that has this diagnosis, you are able to refer them to us.”

Salguero calls this “friend-raising” in addition to fundraising. She also says this event is important because it centers around and celebrates families who Circle of Care has worked with.

“It means a lot to our families. It helps to make them feel not quite so isolated,” Salguero said. “You know, their lives are just going on and they have this great community behind them.”

Each year Circle of Care chooses one individual currently being supported through the cancer journey as the CARE to Run Champion; this year’s honoree, Daniel, is fighting Leukemia.

According to Salguero, Daniel and his family “embodies this incredible positivity” and perseverance that is emblematic of what the non-profit strives to convey.

“Because after nearly 20 years of working with these families, they don’t want me to feel sorry for them. They don’t want to be defined by their disease. These kids and young adults want to be seen for the person they are inside, regardless of the diagnosis,” Salguero said.

Walking Alongside Families on the Journey with Support

Salguero’s son, Carlos, was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, starting a treatment journey that would go on for three years. Salguero co-founded the non-profit almost 20 years ago, with another parent Dawn Ladenheim, as a way to fill this gap she saw in support for families.

“It was during that three years of treatment that I learned about what an incredible gap there was in support services for families who were going through this same very scary devastating diagnosis,” Salguero said.

Since its founding in 2003, Circle of Care has helped more than 3,000 families in total. Now, six staff members and hundreds of volunteers work to help about 200 families each year. The non-profit runs five programs and various activities and is piloting a program to expand in Westchester and southwestern Massachusetts. They are also working on a mentor program to help adolescents and young adults with “hard skills” like resume writing and college essays.

“Our philosophy going into this has always been to walk alongside families while they’re on this journey,” Salguero said.

Reflecting, Salguero said the non-profit didn’t start with a huge vision: it started with a drive to give back. She said sometimes people ask her why she’s still at the non-profit, which strikes her as odd.

It’s a no brainer, she said, and the most fulfilling work she could do.

Credit: contributed / Circle of Care

“Every day I get up, and I go to work because there’s nothing more rewarding in my life,” Salguero said. “When you can see, literally, that you can make a difference in one person’s life that is so significant, it’s worth all the hard work, and the sadness when we lose kids. Just one person at a time. It’s just incredibly powerful .. It’s just very, very special.”

The non-profit most recently launched the Adolescent/Young Adult or AYA program that helps support childhood cancer patients aged 15-26 years old – many of whom are often treated in children’s hospitals, but missing age-appropriate social activities and milestones.

“It came as a direct result of requests from the social workers because this is a very unique population within the world of pediatric cancer,” Salguero said. “They need their own community … it just gives them an opportunity to be with peers, who get them without having to talk about it. ”

The money raised from the 5K, Salguero said, will mostly go toward financially supporting families to ensure stability.

“Cancer is one of the most expensive diagnoses there is and for a young family it can be devastating,” Salguero said. “Loss of income coupled with incredibly high deductibles and copayments, quickly put families into a financial crisis. So the goal of our financial assistance program is to put a floor on that.”

In 2019, the 5K raised $100,000, according to that year’s annual report. Theoharides said she hopes they meet that, but every year is different.

Salguero wouldn’t dream of missing it.

“I’m super excited, it is such a fun day,” Salguero said. “It’s just a fun feel good morning.”

Theoharides is also anticipating the race with excitement – bringing the community together for good, for a cause close to her heart.

“It fills this purpose and that is to recognize the families that are going through what my family went through and to celebrate in a weird way their struggle and hopes for their victory,” Theoharides said. “There’s nothing better than them bringing your community together for a bigger cause.”

Registration for the 5K is still open online. The race begins at Merwin Meadows (52 Lovers Ln.) at 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 30, and all are welcome.