Local natives play big roles in Make-A-Wish event

Published 12:30 am Saturday, June 3, 2017

Covington County native Valerie Cunningham Gerber can be quite persuasive.

The proof? As director of development and marketing of Make-A-Wish Alabama, she recently convinced more than 70 people to hike 23.6 miles in a quest to raise money for her organization. Collectively, the hikers raised more than $190,000 for the non-profit organization that arranges experiences described as “wishes” for children with life-threatening medical conditions.


Gerber said she got the idea for the fundraiser from the Central and Western North Carolina Make-A-Wish chapter.

“She started this in North Carolina four years ago,” Gerber said. “In June of 2016, I went to Charlotte, shadowed the director, and learned the ins and outs. By the time the weekend was over, I had really gotten the bug for the event, and the community I saw it fostered and created.”

She returned to her Birmingham office wearing a bandana, and Alabama became the eighth Make-A-Wish chapter to hold hiking fundraisers.

When she returned from North Carolina, Gerber was confident she could pull off the organization piece. But she needed people who knew about hiking, so she reached out to the only person she knew at the time who might be able to help, another local native, Katrina Foreman.

The two young women knew each other growing up, but weren’t close. They had connected in Birmingham and become friends.

“I knew Katrina was always hiking and outdoors,” Gerber said. “She met me for lunch to talk about it, and at the end of that lunch, she said, ‘I’m in.’ ”

As a hike leader, Foreman helped hikers train and made sure all were physically prepared for the 26.3 mile fundraiser. Foreman also recruited another friend to become a hike leader.

“It’s an incredible event,” Gerber said of Alabama’s Trailblaze Challenge. “It takes 14 weeks of training and preparation, as well as fundraising for the hikers. We ended up having more than 200 people come to information meetings.”

The first training hike was three miles; the last was 22 miles.

“The distance depends upon the trail,” Gerber said. “We picked the Pinhote in the Talladega National Forest.”

The six hike leaders who helped with the event began with Gerber’s Andalusia connection. Along the way, two more local natives, Kristi Sasser and Laura Shows Gibson, joined them.

“Laura and Kristi collectively raised more than $7,000,” Gerber said. “The two of them together can completely grant a child’s wish.”

Make-A-Wish calculates that is the average cost of a wish.

A group who trained in Huntsville trained with a Wish mom, and got to know first-hand the challenges faced daily by families of children with serious illness, and especially Meagan’s family.

“Her wish was to have an English Cream Golden Retriever to alert if her blood sugar drops,” Gerber said. “It’s great because her mom can sleep better knowing that the dog is also on call protecting Meagan.”

Meagan’s mom trained for the Trailblaze Challenge through the 16-mile hike, and raised money for the Challenge, but Meagan developed complications before the actual event. Her mom hopes to participate next year.

Nonetheless, all of the participants who trained together in the Huntsville area hiked with photographs of Meagan on their backpacks.

Gerber, who has been with Make-A-Wish for about two years, coordinates fundraising and awareness events from Fairhope to Huntsville all year long. She’s been working with non-profits since 2006.

The organization has a waiting list of 300 Alabama youngsters with wishes, including eight in the Covington County area, she said.

Gerber, a 1998 graduate of Straughn High School, is the daughter of Marty and Vickie Wacaster of Andalusia, and the late Dewane Cunningham.

Foreman is a 1996 graduate of Andalusia High School, and the daughter of Ellen and Benny Foreman of Andalusia.

Sasser, who graduated AHS in 1990, is the daughter of Glinda Simmons of Andalusia and the late Donnie Sasser.

Gibson practiced law in Andalusia from 1993-2001.

The four women with local ties enjoyed working together.

“I am so proud to be able to call Andalusia/Covington County home,” Gibson posted on social media of after the event. “And it’s because of people like Valerie, Katrina and Kristi – all brilliant, kind, warm and unique – just like our hometown.”

Sasser highly recommended participation.

“If you’re thinking about volunteering or participating with a non-profit, look no further,” she wrote on social media.

Gibson and Sasser are still fundraising for the event. To support their effort, visit alabamatrailblaze.org, and search their names on the “donate” tab.