A record number of participants ventured out to the Florida Atlantic University stadium on Sunday, January 21, 2024, as Gift of Life held its 14th annual Steps for Life 5k Run & Walk of South Florida. More than 900 supporters gathered for the event, where the high point of the morning was the emotional moment when a leukemia survivor met the man whose blood stem cell donation saved her life.
The event raised more than $270,000 to add new stem cell and marrow donors to the registry, so the lives of those battling blood cancer, sickle cell, and inherited immune disorders can be saved.
Anticipation was high as the moment approached when lymphoma survivor Joane Straka would meet her hero – Gift of Life stem cell donor Kenneth Soloway.
Kenneth, a resident of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., joined Gift of Life in December 2017 at the annual Chanukah Fair on Las Olas. That year, long-time Gift of Life volunteers Gail Oliver along with Ed Muster and Judy Brand set up a donor recruitment table and Kenneth stopped by and swabbed.
“I not only swabbed at Hanukkah, I learned I was a match for my recipient close to Hanukkah,” said Kenneth. “It was literally five years almost to the day, when I got the call. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m in – we’re talking about saving a life and this is higher level, whatever it takes.”
Kenneth and Joane were introduced by Andrew Rubenstein, the trustee of the Steven and Beverly Rubenstein Charitable Foundation, whose financial support paid for the laboratory processing of the donor’s swab kit. Andrew welcomed Joane to the stage and shared her story before inviting Kenneth to join them. The two had never met before as federal regulations require transplants to remain anonymous for the first year.
A resident of both Houston, Texas and Chicago, Ill., the 55-year-old wife, grandmother, and retired registered nurse was diagnosed in October 2021 with Adult T-Cell Lymphoma/Leukemia (ATL), a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. After learning that she had a resistance to chemotherapy that meant a stem cell transplant was her only hope of a cure, Joane’s brother was tested, but was a 50% match for her – not close enough for a transplant.
She was hopeful, after learning that it is possible to find an unrelated donor through the registry – and that donor was found quickly.
Kenneth donated stem cells at the Adelson Collection Center located in Gift of Life’s headquarters and Joane received her transplant and began her recovery.
“This huge weight lifted off of my shoulders when I found out I had a match," said Joane. "I thought about my donor every day. I am now more than 18 months post-transplant, and I am finally almost back to where I was before this started. My family and I were just so grateful that Kenneth took time out of his busy life to donate his cells.”
“When I learned that it was critical to do the transplant within a few weeks, I said ‘Let’s do it, let’s rock, no questions asked,” said Kenneth. “After being deployed overseas in the Marines I wasn't allowed to donate blood for many years, so it was good to be able to do this now, to give to someone and help them."
Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer (left) kicked off the event with a warm welcome and emphasized how important it is to be a member of the registry.
Brian Greenspon (center) served as flag bearer for the National Anthem, played by the Park Vista High School Marching Band.
WPTV Channel 5 anchor and Emmy award-winning journalist Stephanie Susskind (right) served as the master of ceremonies for the second year in a row. Thank you, Stephanie!
Thank you, as well, to the Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Department for supplying the always popular Pink Pumper and firefighter hats for the kids.
To launch the race portion of the event, a group of excited children lined up to run the Superhero Sprint. Each of Gift of Life’s mini-heroes received a bright orange cape to wear while running the 50-yard dash.
The Kids Zone featured face painting, rock climbing, petting zoo, ponies, and much more!
Participants from across South Florida ran, walked or cheered people on, with walkers following the 5k runners out of the starting line to follow the course around the beautiful Florida Atlantic University campus.
The top male finishers were Mitchell Levine, Scott Sanock Jr., and Julian Espasito. Top female finishers were Emily Daycock, Jennifer Granit, and Michelle Mason.
Thanks to Accuchip for timing our 5k. Click here to see all race results.
Gift of Life thanks our generous sponsors for their support of Steps for Life. Your involvement with our mission helps to save lives.
Click here to view the event photo gallery.
We look forward to seeing you at the
Steps for Life 5k of South Florida