By Dedra Cordle
Elizabeth “Elle” Dean absolutely loves the Fourth of July.
From the moment she wakes up, she buzzes with excitement at the prospect of time with family, sharing sparklers with her sister and neighborhood friends, and watching dazzling displays of fireworks as they light up the night sky.
“The Fourth of July starts and ends with a bang for Elle,” said her mother, Kathryn with a laugh.
To the 6-year-old girl who calls Grove City home, it is a day that holds so much potential and she already believes that July 4, 2020 could prove to be the most memorable yet.
Her anticipation for this date began with an announcement late last year: Unbeknownst to the Dean family, Kathryn’s sister, Dr. Elizabeth Hewitt, and her brother-in-law, Joel Wichtman, had spent the better part of 2019 establishing a foundation to be named in Elle’s honor. Not only would this foundation be used to fund research and treatment for Juvenile Myositis, a rare and complex autoimmune disorder that affects two to four children out of a million each year, but they had founded an annual 5K to be named after her most beloved holiday.
“We could not believe what we were hearing,” said Kathryn. “I had no idea my sister and brother-in-law were doing this for us, and I had no idea that Elizabeth could be so sneaky.”
“I was not being sneaky,” said Hewitt, a podiatrist at Foot and Ankle Physicians of Ohio. “I just didn’t tell her about it because I wanted it to be a surprise.”
According to Hewitt, a variety of factors played a role in their decision to establish the Elizabeth Dean Foundation and the Firecracker 5K, and it wasn’t just because of the love they have for their niece.
“We wanted to give something back to this community,” she said. “The people here have been so welcoming and supportive of Elle and this foundation and the race is our way of saying ‘thank you’ for all that they have done.”
Having moved to the area more than a decade ago for her residency at Grant Medical Center, Hewitt would always encourage her sister to visit as she found it to be charming. At first, she would invite her to Ohio for the holidays, then to team up and run marathons like they did in high school and then eventually she started planting ideas of a permanent move in her head.
Kathryn said she was not averse to the idea but did not feel it was the right time as she and her husband were starting to discuss having children.
In 2014, when Kathryn was pregnant with Elle and living in Illinois, she experienced a number of complications.
“I had a very challenging pregnancy that was riddled with issues,” she said. “I had thought that something might be happening with Elle too but I didn’t really want to believe it at the time.”
When Elle was born – premature and with an underdeveloped thyroid gland, a comprised immune system and partial facial paralysis – she spent the first four months of her new life in the neonatal intensive care unit fighting to survive. Later, when she developed ocular tumors and was given four months to live, she exceeded expectations to overcome those odds.
When she was diagnosed with Juvenile Myositis, the rare and complex disorder that causes the body’s own immune system to attack healthy cells, tissues and muscles, she co-existed with all its complications and continued to flourish.
Kathryn said it was important that Elle live as normal of a life as possible, and she felt that could be achieved when they moved to Grove City in 2016.
“I knew from visiting my sister that this was a wonderful place and the people here have proven to be wonderful as well.”
She said that while children in Elle’s school have inquired about her differences (her motor skills are delayed due to her illnesses but they are developing and she is always striving to perfect her burgeoning talents), they have embraced her and anointed her as a member of their family.
Eventually, her classmates and new friends decided they wanted to know more about JM and how they could help. They turned to their parents who began to do their own research and created a neighborhood fundraising effort.
According to the Myositis Association, there is currently no cure for the disease but there are treatments that can successfully manage the symptoms. Kathryn said that, with more research and funding, Elle could be one of those children whose symptoms become manageable.
“I don’t see why it couldn’t happen to her,” she said.
All of the proceeds for the Firecracker 5K, which is presented by the Foot and Ankle Physicians of Ohio, will go to fund research at the Cure JM Foundation and other organizations that seek treatments for unknown pediatric pathology.
The race/walk will be held at the Pinnacle Golf Club, located at 1500 Pinnacle Club Drive in Grove City; participation will be limited at 300. The race has been approved by both the city and Ohio Health.
The event will start at 7:45 a.m. on July 4 with a 100-meter Sparkler Sprint for kids aged 3 to 9. There is a $15 race fee and a $2.50 sign-up fee. Participants will earn a complimentary race day t-shirt, a finisher’s medal and finisher post-race refreshments.
At 8 a.m., the Firecracker 5K will begin for racers and walkers and it will take them throughout the Pinnacle Golf Course and surrounding area. There is a $35 race fee and a $3 sign-up fee. Participants will also earn a complimentary race day t-shirt, finisher’s medal and finisher post-race refreshments.
The deadline for registration for both events is 7:30 p.m. on July 3.
After the race, participants will be invited to a brunch where mixologists at Cimi’s Bistro have crafted a “Firecracker Fizz” to top off the event. There will also be an Ohio Health and Wellness Expo on the premises.
While July 4, 2020 holds the promise of another fun day, one person who will have to sit on the sidelines is Elle. Due to her compromised immune system, she will be unable to watch the race and cheer for the runners and walkers in person because of the global pandemic. But she will be there in spirit, and likely in some other fashion.
“We are working on some special ideas with technology,” said Hewitt. “We know how much she wanted to be there and to be able to say “Go” to the racers so we are trying to come up with a way for her to safely have a role in it.”
To sign up for the Firecracker 5K, or to learn more about the race, go to https://runsignup.com/Race/OH/GroveCity/GCFirecracker5k ; additional information can also be found at https://racepenguin.com/events/grove-city-firecracker-5k and on their Facebook page.