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Keeping hope alive

Fri, Feb 9th, 2001
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Spring Valley family copes with ALSBy Carol ThouinMonday, February 12, 2001

When Wes Blakeslee was a youngster growing up on a farm near Mystery Cave, he'd spend hours in the garage tinkering on motors and engines. "He liked anything mechanical and was always working on one of his friend's snowmobiles," said his dad, Sam, who along with wife, Gloria, still live on the family farm south of Spring Valley. "It seemed to be his calling," Sam said.

Today, at age 40, Wes has a new calling. He still enjoys snowmobiles and motors. In fact, he's a development engineering manager for Polaris in Roseau, Minnesota where he lives with wife Connie and their three children. But a devastating diagnosis three years ago caused him to switch gears to focus on the biggest challenge of his life. Wes has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The disease is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease after the famous New York Yankees baseball player who was forced to retire in 1939 due to the illness that eventually took his life. The disease, which affects about one in every 100,000 people, seems to affect men more than women. Symptoms include muscle weakness, decreased muscle strength and coordination, speech impairments and difficulty with breathing and swallowing. The prognosis for ALS is grim. There is no known cure.

Wes first noticed a slight twitching in his bicep that just wouldn't go away. "It went on for a long time -- more than two months," he said. Eventually, he sought medical attention, which resulted in a battery of tests and then in October of 1998, the devastating discovery.

"I knew there was something wrong, but I just didn't believe it," Wes said. He went through a mourning period trying to accept the diagnosis. "It was a very rough time," he said. It wasn't easy for any of the family, remembers mom, Gloria. "We got a call from Wes asking if we were going to be home -- he was coming down to Spring Valley," Gloria said. It was a long trip south for Wes and his family, who live 10 miles from the Canadian border. "We knew something was wrong because we had just seen them," Gloria said. She nervously paced the floor and waited until the entire family, including the couple's other two sons, Mike and Dan, and their families arrived. "It was tough to take," said Sam about the news his son had to break to the family.

Faced with such an unforgiving disease, some people might just give up. That's not the path Wes and his family chose to take. "Time tends to heal and people learn to deal with it and go on," Wes said. His mother echoes those sentiments. "Communication is key. You can't just push it under the rug," Gloria said. But, she refuses to talk to people who only have negative things to share. "You have to keep positive -- our faith is what keeps us going." Instead of letting their fears consume them, the Blakeslee family is paving the way to hope by organizing and participating in ALS fund raising activities that heighten awareness and support research for a cure.

Many family members and friends gathered in Northern Minnesota the first weekend in February for the annual Blizzard Tour, a snowmobile ride fundraiser now in its third year. Riders start in Proctor, Minnesota and ride to Tower, then on to Two Harbors and back. To participate in the nearly 400-mile winter extravaganza, riders must raise at least $500 for the cause. This year, 75 riders participated, including several from the Spring Valley area.

Kenny Clark, a long-time friend of Wes participated for the first time. "Some of my friends had been involved in the past and mentioned that I should join them," Clark said. With no time to get pledges before his quickly planned trip, Clark generously donated the $500 out of his own pocket. "It's going to a great cause," he said. Other friends followed suite helping to tally $80,000, which is slated for the ALS Association. "It's just amazing what a few people can do," said Clark, who rode alongside retired Twins catcher Terry Steinbach throughout much of the Blizzard Tour. Both Steinbach and former Twins teammate Kent Hrbek lost their fathers to ALS and, like Wes and his family, are active in raising money to find a cure.

While Wes didn't finish the entire 400-mile route on snowmobile, he did manage to fetch the grand prize (for the second year in a row) at a banquet that culminated the weekend's events. With his donations totaling $13,500 from Roseau schools and organizations, Wes's fund-raising efforts couldn't be beat. "Roseau is a spectacular community," he said. "People have been incredibly gracious." His winnings? A Polaris snowmobile donated by his company. "Polaris has been wonderful," said Wes. "They support me in fund-raising and are flexible to accommodate my needs at work." But Wes won't be keeping his new sled. He's donating it to a snowmobile club for a raffle that will send half the proceeds back to the ALS Association.

Now that the Blizzard Tour is over for another year, Wes is focusing on a couple of other key events -- quite a feat for someone facing a life threatening condition. His dad isn't surprised. "Wes never has been a complainer," Sam said. "He's very active and always has something going."

Here's what's in the works. An ALS walk is planned in Roseau in July along with the third annual ALS church campout scheduled the weekend of June 30th on the grounds of the United Methodist Church in Spring Valley. Tickets are $7 for a tasty pork chop dinner, which along with a campfire sing-a-long, children's activities and morning fellowship is open to the public. Last year's campout brought in $1,100. "We're so grateful to all the people who have organized this event and for all the donations and support the community has given our family," Gloria said. "If you can't give a donation, we welcome your prayers."

The Blakeslee family may be separated by geography, but a special spirit of caring binds them together over the miles. "Wes's disease has brought us closer together as a family," said Gloria. "Whenever there is an occasion to get together, everyone comes."

Since being diagnosed with ALS, Wes has adopted the motto -- never surrender. The slogan has popped up on the bumper of his pick-up truck, on his snowmobiles and now on T-shirts. It's just another testament to his positive outlook and undying spirit. "I've always thrived on a challenge," he said.

By Carol Thouin

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