About 1,200 walkers described as "core Komen people" rested Saturday night at a mobile campsite set up on the grounds of Maryville Academy in Des Plaines before beginning the final leg of the 60-mile Susan G. Komen Chicago 3-Day.
The walk kicked off days after Komen announced founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker and President Liz Thompson will be stepping down, and about six months after the nonprofit angered people on both sides of the abortion debate by cutting off, then restoring funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood.
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The 3-Day is hosted by the national Komen organization, but a portion of its proceeds goes to the Chicagoland Area affiliate, said Executive Director Michael Ziener, who on Saturday praised participants for their dedication to supporting breast cancer patients and ending the disease.
"These people are the core Komen people," Ziener said about the estimated 1,200 participants. "With everything we've been through, they're walking 60 miles -- there's a lot of training involved; they're raising upward of $2,300 (each). Through our challenges, we still have this amazing network of grass-roots volunteers."
Walkers -- who started at Northbrook Court mall on Friday and will finish at Soldier Field in Chicago today -- said they endure sore feet, chilly nights in tents, and the rigor of raising funds because of personal connections to breast cancer patients, survivors and those who lost their lives to the disease.
Rob Lynch of Lindenhurst walked in his third 3-Day honoring a friend and a family member who were each diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. He said the women wanted him to donate to Komen, and his mind wasn't changed by the back-and-forth on Planned Parenthood funding.
"It goes to a good cause; it's not like it goes to something that's not important," Lynch said about the money he and other 3-Day participants raise. "This is important."
For Alison Liley of St. Louis, the 3-Day was in honor of her mother, who had a mastectomy because of breast cancer two years ago. Liley said she decided to walk the event's 60 miles in honor of her mom's 60th birthday.
"We're walking because of what they do with the funds they get from this to support breast cancer research," Liley said.
Still, there were fewer walkers this year than at last year's Chicago 3-Day, which drew 1,900 people, national spokeswoman Sheri Phillips said. Phillips said she did not have any insight into whether the smaller crowd was a result of the Planned Parenthood funding controversy. She said organizers were focusing on creating a relaxing atmosphere at the mobile campsite for many of the 1,200 walkers who choose to sleep there in tidy rows of bright pink tents.
"It's really a time for them to relax, have some fun and really reflect on the day's journey," Phillips said about the campsite, which included a stage for musical performances, a grouping of yoga mats for stretching, food tents and foot massages for participants.
Meghan McManamon of Elk Grove Village took an "early to bed and early to rise" approach at the campsite Friday night and said she planned to do the same Saturday night. Walking with her mother, cousin and friends, she said the group wanted to wake up about 4:30 a.m. to get walking as early as allowed -- about 6 a.m.
As the 3-Day wraps up, Komen's Chicagoland affiliate will continue preparing for its Race for the Cure events Saturday, Sept. 23, in Chicago and Sunday, Sept. 24, in Lombard. Signups for both locations are on pace to match last year's total of 12,500 runners and walkers, Ziener said.
The local affiliate was affected less than some by the Planned Parenthood funding issue because Planned Parenthood has never applied for grant funding here, Ziener said. If the reproductive health care provider applies, he said, its application will be reviewed by the same process always used, undergoing scrutiny by a group of volunteer health experts to determine if the use of the money falls into the categories Komen funds, including screenings, navigational support, treatment and diagnostics.
Ziener said 75 percent of net donations the local affiliate receives goes back to community organizations. Drops in donations for any reason, whether related or unrelated to a person's views on grants for Planned Parenthood, hinder the charity's mission, he said.
"A lack or reduction in funding at the end of the day hurts women and access to care," Ziener said. "It hurts women and men, bottom line."