Tewksbury resident and Saint Anselm college freshman Ariana Raso

Tewksbury resident and Saint Anselm college freshman Ariana Raso was recently named The First Time Walker of the Year by the Jimmy Fund for her participation in and fundraising for the Jimmy Fund Boston Marathon Walk Your Way Event which took place last October. Raso overcame Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma to partake in the 13.1 mi walk. The walk took place around Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield due to the Corona virus.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that hit the United States last winter and remains a public safety crisis, officials canceled the 2020 Boston Marathon (and related events) and moved the 2021 Marathon to October. This means many people missed out on the excitement of either competing professionally or running for a particular charity or organization.

One Tewksbury native, meanwhile, had her own personal Marathon moment last year in spite of the pandemic. Arianna Raso, a freshman at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH, managed to walk 13.1 miles or a half-marathon (four laps) around Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield.

For Raso, the walk was impressive for two reasons: one, 13.1 miles is a lot of walking, and two, Raso recently overcame Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a condition doctor’s diagnosed her with during her senior year of high school back in 2019.

In honor of her achievements, the Jimmy Fund named her the “First-Time Walker of the Year” for her efforts in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk: Your Way presented by Hyundai. The Tewksbury native was among a select group of awardees recognized at the virtual Extra Mile Brunch back in March for her fundraising commitment in the 32nd annual walk event, held virtually, this past October.

Raso’s involvement with the Jimmy Fund actually goes back to before her own diagnosis.

“I have always wanted to participate in the Jimmy Fund because my great uncle, my aunts and my mom participated in the event in honor of my great uncle’s daughter, who sadly passed away of cancer in 2005,” Raso said.

She added that being a child back then, she could only come and cheer on her family. As she grew up, she became more interested in participating in the walk itself.

“When I finally decided that I wanted to walk, I had become sick myself and was unable to walk that year,” Raso noted.

Showing her toughness and determination, the Saint Anselm freshman didn’t let Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma or the coronavirus pandemic stop her from completing her goal. With a strong support system of family and friends behind her, Raso was able to surpass one year of being in remission. In 2020, she was finally able to join the Walk as the team captain of Arianna's Army, even though the Walk was now in a virtual setting.

“My family did a socially distanced walk around Lake Quannapowitt and we determined beforehand that four laps around the lake made up the 13.1 miles of the half marathon. My team had over 15 participants who walked around the lake, and others in my family assisted by giving out water and snacks.”

She noted how her family worked really hard to recreate the experience to the best of their ability “so that I could experience it all.” Raso said they brought balloons for the start/finish line, as well as posters and signs with stories of those they knew who had cancer. Her family also created a signature wall for people to sign or leave a message.

“Some of my family members who were not walking made the Walk memorable by giving us smiley face stickers for every few miles we completed. My dad created a lattice honor wall so that we could all write names of loved ones on the red, white and yellow ribbons.”

Raso noted how “we took pictures throughout our journey and made some amazing memories that day.”

All that hard work and effort paid off by not only giving the TMHS graduate her own Walk experience, but also setting her up to receive the First-Time Walker of the Year award. To say she didn’t see it coming would be an understatement.

“When I first learned that I was the winner of the First-Time Walker award, I was speechless,” Raso acknowledged. “I was very shocked to learn that I received this award. I am so honored to be chosen as the winner of this award because I worked so hard to get where I am today. It means so much to me that people get to hear my story and I hope I will inspire and motivate others to do the same as I did.”

It’s a special occasion for anyone participating in a major event for the first time, but Raso thanked her family and all her supporters for making her first Jimmy Fund Walk “even more special and memorable.”

Amazingly, this all happened just one year after Raso heard the words, “you have cancer.”

Talking about the diagnosis, she said, “no one is ever prepared to hear (those words) no matter what the circumstances are. The only reaction I could say accurately describes how I felt is shocked and blindsided.”

Raso described herself before the diagnosis as a “healthy adolescent.” She said someone like herself, young and healthy, never expects to hear the news that they have cancer.

“Thankfully, I have a very large support system made up of my family and friends who all helped me in some way when I was sick. My family helped in many ways by visiting me in the hospital, cooking me my favorite foods, and keeping me company when I was at home in between my treatment. My friends helped me by assisting me with my schoolwork, visiting me at home, and finding ways for me to still participate in school events.”

Raso called herself “lucky and thankful to have such a great support system” who helped her fight cancer.

Going from a heartbreaking diagnosis to crossing the Jimmy Fund Walk finish line in a year’s time is quite the journey. Raso said she had “a mix of many emotions including relief, excitement, pride, and feeling accomplished” when she completed the 13.1 mile jaunt around Lake Quannapowitt.

“There is no way to truly describe how one feels when participating in a fundraiser. I just really enjoy being a part of an organization that selflessly works to help those in need. The feeling that you get after it is over is a sense of accomplishment but also an eagerness to get to the next year and do it all over again.”

Of course, Raso didn’t do it alone. She beat cancer with the help of family and friends and she finished the Walk with their help, too. She said she had more than 15 people with her, calling their presence “an experience like no other.” And, although it wasn’t easy, she’s all ready for this year’s Walk in the fall.

“I can proudly say that although it was difficult, I was able to accomplish my goal and complete the half marathon.”

She led her team to raise more than $16,000. She hopes that someday no one will have to go through what she and millions of others go through when they hear the words, “You have cancer.”

“Arianna’s enthusiasm, passion, and energy exemplify the unique spirit of this event,” said Zack Blackburn, Director, Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk. “Arianna is a prime example of someone who has dedicated their time to conquering cancer and supporting high-level research at Dana-Farber, despite the unique circumstances of the past year. Even though the pandemic altered the world, Arianna’s commitment to conquering cancer remained as steady as ever through her involvement with the Jimmy Fund.”

The 2021 Jimmy Fund Walk, scheduled to take place virtually on Sunday, Oct. 3, will continue to unite the community to raise funds for the Jimmy Fund to support all forms of adult and pediatric patient care and cancer research at the nation’s premier cancer center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Whether participating for themselves, loved ones, neighbors, or co-workers, each walker shares a common purpose: to support breakthroughs that will benefit cancer patients around the world.

To register for the Walk (#JimmyFundWalk) or to support a walker, visit www.JimmyFundWalk.org or call (866) 531-9255. This year’s event will have a lower fundraising requirement, $100 for adults and $25 for those under 18, with a $5 registration fee. All registered walkers will receive a bib and medal and the first 5,000 to register will receive a commemorative Jimmy Fund Walk T-shirt.

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