Kathy Mazzeo is congratulated by state Sen. Adam Hinds after giving an inspirational speech on her experiences with multiple sclerosis.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Kathy Mazzeo had been stressed for years over the specter of multiple sclerosis.
More than a dozen years ago, she'd started to exhibit some of the symptoms of MS: the feeling of pins and needles on her extremities, some difficulty maneuvering, vision problems. She was haunted by the memory of a little girl with the disease whom her mother had cared for when Mazzeo was younger.
"As I kept thinking in my mind of what was going on with my body, the more issues I had," she said. Her neurologist couldn't specifically diagnose MS but believed that her anxiety was making her issues worse. "I don't think I was ready to learn I had the disease."
It was nearly six years later, after having increasing difficulty, that Mazzeo got the diagnosis she'd dreaded.
"At that point, I was saying, 'why me?'" she said. "But then I thought, 'why not me?' ...
"My doctor noticed that once I found I had MS my anxiety, my worry, pretty much went away. I accepted the disease ... so for the next years and where I am today, I learned to deal with being in the now."
A smiling Mazzeo told the crowd at MS Support Foundation's 10th annual gala on Saturday night that she'd learned not to worry too much about the next day or next hour. It's not worth worrying over spilled milk but rather work on wiping it up and moving on.
The Cheshire resident has found support from her husband and family, from her employer and colleagues, and from the many backers of the local multiple sclerosis foundation.
"I would really like to help other people who have just been diagnosed," Mazzeo said, adding, "our greatest glory is not never falling but rising every time we fall."
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disease that strikes the brain and spinal cord and causes nerve damage. The symptoms can range from impeded mobility to paralysis and its effects can vary greatly from person to person. There is no cure but there is a growing number of treatments to alleviate and manage the condition.
MS Support Foundation was established more than a decade ago to help people like Mazzeo in the tri-state region who are meeting the challenges of living with the disease. On Saturday, the nonprofit celebrated with its 10th annual gala fundraiser, "Hope Springs Eternal," at the Country Club of Pittsfield. Last year's gala raised more than $52,000.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, was the master of ceremonies and presented board President Wende Carver and Executive Director Judy Bombardier with a resolution from the State Senate congratulating the MS Foundation on its 10 years of service and support to MS patients and families.
The event also held a silent auction of donated baskets from local businesses, a wine pull and a live auction for a dinner for eight; six days in Aruba and two tickets to "Hamilton." The headliners were WNYT Channel 13 news anchors Benita Zahn and Jerry Gretzinger, the "Singing Anchors," who performed an hourlong cabaret of golden-age hits.
The celebration also was notable for the first annual Robert L.W. McGraw Award presented to -- Robert "Robin" McGraw.
Carver said the award was created to recognize exemplary citizenship and dedication to helping those within the community living with multiple sclerosis, something that McGraw does on a daily basis.
"Robin's exemplary citizenship has no bounds," she said. "Any need in our community, Robin has likely significantly influenced it in some way."
Matthew Scarafoni, Carver's cousin and a close friend of McGraw's, described him as a Renaissance Man in the breadth and depth of his intellectual interests and community activism.
McGraw, left, has long been involved with community efforts as well as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
McGraw has been involved in the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, including being inducted into its Volunteer Hall of Fame in 2015, and is a leader on its five-year, $1 billion Breakthrough MS campaign to accelerate research and breakthroughs on the disease.
He's also served the boards of Volunteers in Medicine, Berkshire Healthcare Systems, HospiceCare in the Berkshires, Mystic (Conn.) Seaport Museum and the Donald C. McGraw Foundation; is trained as a paramedic, is a member of the Jiminy Peak Ski Patrol and works with the Black Rock Football Club; is active with Berkshire School, from which he graduated. He's also been working with Sheriff Thomas Bowler in addressing the county's opioid epidemic, including developing a tilapia farm at the House of Corrections.
"Robin you have earned the award that we are bestowing on you tonight on behalf of your work on MS, the work you do to help your niece who has MS, the work you do to help locally the programming that Wende does with her team and the national impact you have on fighting MS," Scarafoni said. "You've earned the right to have this award given every year to someone who best exemplifies your character, your passion for helping others and your ability to master so many of your activities ... with people like you, MS will go the way of polio and smallpox, we hope."
McGraw, on the other hand, said his wife, Elizabeth "Buzz" McGraw, deserved the award just as much.
"I would accomplish very little without her," he said. "I am truly humbled to accept this and have you all here to share this wonderful moment with me and my family ... The things we get to do to improve the lives of people in Berkshire County means a lot to me."
The National MS Society's "bold and ambitious plan" to mobilize resources to find solutions to MS and the local foundation's "boots on the ground" efforts to support those living with MS wouldn't happen except for people like those attending the gala, he said. This is where it "becomes tangible and meaningful" for those living with the disease.
"If you have MS, it's being able to button your shirt in the morning, it's being able to walk to the supermarket and all the way back, it's getting back up on that bike, that surfboard that horse," McGraw continued. "It's having the first dance at your daughter's wedding, feeling strong enough to fall in love, continuing the job you were made for.
"It's knowing that you and your loved ones will never worry about MS again, ever."
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Student speaker Brittany Sullivan shared her story of how she turned her life around. More photos from there ceremony can be found here.
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