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near to my heart: joshua gonder memorial foundation

February 9, 2010

I remember the morning like it was yesterday.  I was up ridiculously early for a Saturday, but duty called.  My friend, Cristin, recruited me to be her official sidekick.  Our mission of the day: to provide nutrition, hydration, sustenance and encouragement to those participating in the first ever J-Walk.

The J-Walk was organized by friends to raise funds for another friend who was in need of medical equipment.  It was a large undertaking for the walkers – a marathon to be completed over an entire day.  The distance did not deter participants, most would have been willing to conquer any distance to aid the one and only Josh Gonder.

Josh was diagnosed with Congenital Muscular Dystrophy as a toddler, but he never let his condition define him.  Josh’s parents, John and Maryanne, had a lot to do with that.  They accepted Josh for who he was and raised him with love and dignity.  He grew up to be an extraordinary man, who glided his way into everyone’s hearts as easily and gracefully as he maneuvered his wheelchair.

I had only known Josh a short time compared to his other friends.  I had met him at a youth conference the year before I moved to New Jersey.  Of course our paths crossed frequently after I moved east.  There was always something going on, whether it was a prayer meeting or a bunch of us hanging out, that afforded me the opportunity to see Josh.  These large gatherings of people were never my forte, especially considering I was a newcomer to the circle in which we moved and rather shy.  But Josh had a way of making people feel at ease.  Even though he was busy working the room, I knew there was always an open spot next to Josh’s wheelchair where I would be welcomed.  I appreciated that more than words can say!  I was grateful I had a chance to repay Josh for the friendship he offered by helping with the J-Walk.

I was up before sunrise on the day of the walk.  My roommates and I readied ourselves for the coming adventure.  We loaded our cars with the necessary provisions and headed over to the starting line.

It was a long day for everyone – participants and volunteers, but Josh continued to inspire us.  From my vantage point at the food stations, I was able to witness the determination and drive shared by all to finish the course for Josh.  It was beautiful to see each person demonstrate their deep love and respect for the man of the hour in such tangible ways.

The walk was a success and Josh’s one request was that it take place the next year to help someone else in need.  It was Josh’s last request.  Just one week after the J-Walk, I answered the phone and heard the devastating news: Josh Gonder passed away in his sleep early that morning.

Josh’s request was honored and a foundation was set up in his memory.  The foundation has assisted many individuals since the first J-Walk in 2002, though now they hold a golf outing instead of a 26 mile trek.

My friendship with Josh had a profound impact on my life, more than anyone realizes.  I am honored to have known him, even if it was brief.  I still consider Josh my go-to friend, though instead of helping me out in a crowded room, he is able to do much more from heaven.

Please visit the Joshua Gonder Memorial Foundation website to learn more about Josh’s life, including a short video, and the many ways the foundation continues to honor the extraordinary man, Josh Gonder.

photo credit: the Foundation website

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