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John Donat and his family have a strong connection with the annual CROP Hunger Walk that passes through Forest Park for a stop at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Twelve years ago he and his wife pushed their two young daughters in strollers the length of the 6.5 mile trek. In another year, within two months of undergoing surgery for cancer, Donat’s wife managed to walk a portion of the route with him.

This year it was his youngest daughter Erika Donat’s turn to do the heavy lifting while Donat took it easy and volunteered at the church to help organize refreshments at the rest stop sponsored by St. Paul’s.

“The concept of giving back is very strong for the CROP walkers,” Donat said. He also serves as the president of the church congregation.

As far as anyone can remember, the people of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church have participated in every CROP Hunger Walk since the event began in this area. This year’s CROP Walk, held on May 6, marked the 24th anniversary of the event locally. CROP is an acronym for Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty.

Last year, Hunger Walkathon West-as the event in the tri-village area is known-raised $54,360 to feed hungry people both in our area and around the world. St. Paul’s walkers raised more than $1,500 and staffed a rest stop about three miles into the jaunt. Some $13,600 of the money raised in the 2006 walk stayed in this area, going to the Forest Park Food Pantry, West Suburban PADS, Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, Vital Bridges, Cluster Tutoring Program and the Pine Avenue Food Pantry.

Oddly enough, when congregation members talk about the event they express gratitude for what they have received.

Mary Ann Triveri, who has participated in the hunger walk for 10 years, said that St. Paul’s involvement has helped raise the congregation’s sense of self-worth.

“Because we are a small congregation, having a group of walkers every year, staffing our rest stop along the route, and getting everyone in the congregation involved by sponsoring walkers and donating oranges for the rest stop makes us feel like we are making a sizeable contribution to something important,” Triveri said.

Deelee Bramhall, a sophomore at Oak Park and River Forest High School, talked about the benefits she reaps through the charity event during an Easter morning service.

“I’m walking because not only will it help the hungry, but it also benefits me,” Bramhall said. “Knowing that I’m making a difference, that I can reach out and help people who need it the most, makes me feel proud and good about myself.”

For the Donats and other church members, the walk has become a family tradition. Jean Leinweber, a fourth generation member of St. Paul’s, remembers when her nephew Fred was a little boy and accompanied his father on a trip to the Randolph Street Market to get apples for the rest stop. Now Fred is a teacher, is working on his master’s degree and is involved with the church council. Leinweber proudly cheered her nephew on as he passed the St. Paul’s rest stop on his way to completing the route last Sunday.

For every St. Paul’s member walking in the event, there is another helping on the sidelines with the rest station.

“We cut up oranges and set them out with cookies,” Marilyn McCullagh said. “We provide cold lemonade and water at our rest stop. But mainly our job is to provide encouragement to the walkers, to be cheerleaders.”

St. Paul’s members pride themselves on staffing the best rest stop on the 10K route. Not only do they provide refreshments, they also set up chairs under the shade of maple trees and treats for the dogs some walkers bring along.

The event takes on a jovial tone and the walkers do their best to enjoy themselves. One year, according to Leinweber, a pet owner decided to make his dog the official walker instead of himself. She laughed to think of people pledging money to a dog. She remembered some young people playing ping pong in the church’s social hall after walking nearly four miles, impatiently waiting for the older people in the group to resume their hike.

But Leinweber said there is also a more serious motivation.

“We’re doing this because we’re Christians and that’s what Christians do,” Leinweber said. “I mean, who is our neighbor? Our neighbors are nearby and far away.”

Bramhall, the high school sophomore, said the experience empowers her.

“I’m participating in the CROP Walk because I feel like I’m giving back to Jesus,” Bramhall said. “By me walking to feed the hungry, I feel like I’m doing something that would make Jesus happy.”

St. Paul’s pastor, Audree Catalano, said that there are sound theological reasons why the CROP Walk is important. The event creates an awareness of people who are in need, it gives an opportunity for people to respond to the gospel call to feed the hungry and it provides a chance to experience unity with other believers.

“It’s an opportunity to make us other-centered instead of self-centered; to see the needs of others and be of service to them,” Catalano said.

CROP is the fundraising arm of Church World Service (CWS), which according to its publication, provides relief, sustainable self-help and refugee assistance in some 80 countries. According to CWS, in the last 20 years more than five million CROP walkers participated in 35,888 walks in 2,000 communities across the U.S. and raised $260 million.