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Perry Co. walk organizer sees himself as part of problem and solution to area’s health woes

 (Photo by  Cris Ritchie)

Sam Neace, organizer of the Great Perry County Walk Saturday, Sept. 20, knows firsthand that healthy habits begin with a single step. (Photo by Cris Ritchie)


By Kristy Robinson Horine
KyForward correspondent

When it comes to health and fitness, Sam Neace might be one of the worst role models around. At least, that’s the way he sees it.

“I don’t pay anywhere near as much attention to how healthy I am eating, and I don’t exercise as much as I need to,” says Neace. “I have a real bad habit, if I don’t have something motivating me, I fall behind.”

That self-assessment makes Neace human, and relatively normal. What makes this life-long resident of Perry County extraordinary is how he has decided to take steps in the right direction – about 22,000 steps, that is.

On Saturday, Sept. 20, Neace will lead a 12-mile walk across Perry County to raise awareness for health issues and to help himself and others become the role models he knows Southeastern Kentucky needs.

Although he doesn't consider himself a good role model, Sam Neace (Photo by Cris Ritchie)

Although he doesn’t consider himself a good role model, Sam Neace organized a 25-mile walk across Perry County last year and a 12-mile walk this year. He says ‘People need to know they are capable of doing these things.’ (Photo by Cris Ritchie)

“I have to stop and think that I am so aware of these statistics and I want to do something about it, but it is so hard for me to change me. “Therein lies a big part of the problem. And the solution,” admits Neace, who as director of community engagement for local radio station WMMT 88.7 FM is a well-known figure in Perry County.

Last year, after the Today Show featured a report about the life expectancy of women across the nation. Perry County, Kentucky, ranked last. Perry County came in next to last, healthwise, in the state last year, statistics show. And for this year, Neace says they rank dead last, no pun intended.

In response, Neace quickly called the community together last fall. He organized a 25-mile walk across Perry County, garnered support for booths to be set up in Vicco, a small community outside Hazard, and offered free health screenings and help with back-to-school supplies for some of the local students. Last year, about 200 people attended the health fair. Fourteen people walked, some of those going the entire 25 miles in about seven hours.

“We all looked like we stepped straight out of war, we looked so rough,” Neace remembers. “We can usually walk four miles an hour for the first three hours, then three miles an hour, and then about two miles an hour toward the end. The last five miles of last year’s walk was pure willpower.”

Walking 25 miles across the Appalachian foothills of Perry County on wide-shouldered highways might seem like an impossible feat to most people. But Neace is accustomed to a little challenge. He’s also accustomed to being a fighter. He went head-to-head against cancer – and won.

In 2008, Neace was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He had five different types of tumors in his body. At stage III, surgery wouldn’t be enough to save his life, and Neace made the decision to endure a 12-week course of three different types of chemotherapy in addition to having a testicle removed.

“I just looked at is as I’ve either got a 100 percent chance of living, or a 100 percent chance of dying,” Neace says. “There were so many milestones. I turned 30 during the treatment, which I looked at as the start of a new decade, a new life. My wife, Rebekah, and I were building a new home, we were expecting our third child.”

It was that tenacity and strength of will that helped him beat the cancer, live to love his family and learn how to help others along the way.

Those qualities also helped him to pursue his writing dreams. On Sept. 22, 2009, armed with a backpack, extra shoes and a finished manuscript, Neace set out on a 500-mile trek to Harpo Studios in Chicago, home to Oprah Winfrey’s show. It was his intention to hand-deliver his manuscript and have the Queen of Talk Shows read his book.

 (Photo by Johnny Cummings)

The Great Perry County Walk includes a health fair and coincides with Hazard’s Black Gold Festival. (Photo by Johnny Cummings)

When he arrived in Chicago, he learned that Oprah was out of town, but an executive took his manuscript. Neace never heard back from that endeavor, but he did learn one important thing – he could walk, rain or shine, 500 miles.

That walk started with a dream – and a single step. This Saturday’s second annual Great Perry County Walk also also starts with a single step. It begins at 9 a.m. on the Perry/Knott County line on Highway 80 at Jamestown and is scheduled to end just in time for the Community Health Fair in the Perry County Park, off Highway 15 in Hazard.

So far, 20 people have signed up to walk the 12-mile stretch, but Neace says he believes more people will show up the day of the walk.

The walk and health fair are sponsored by the radio station where Neace works and is host of several programs, including Mountain Survivors, a talk show that features cancer survivors and their stories. The National Testicular Cancer Society and the Lexington Cancer Foundation are also helping out with support. The health fair booths will offer glucose screenings and blood pressure readings, as well as information from local organizations and businesses such as the Hazard Clinic, Vicco Dental and a local chiropractic practice.

“Walkers are invited to walk as much as they can, but they don’t have to walk the entire 12 miles. It’s not a race, it’s just a statement,” Neace says of the walk that has no time limits, no big media coverage, and no trophies or awards for the ones who make it across the finish line. “It’s mostly just the opportunity to say they did it. Ultimately what you really want to happen is that you want someone to say they will start walking a little bit. Just keep doing things.”

The walk and the health fair coincide with Hazard’s Annual Black Gold Festival, a weekend event where festival goers celebrate their history and heritage with the coal industry and listen to live entertainment from popular regional musicians.

Neace says he hopes the health fair and the festival will have crossover traffic this Saturday, something which might lead to a healthier community.

“It’s a culture issue here in Southeastern Kentucky. Our culture has developed some unhealthy habits. We have a high percentage of tobacco use and we are a fast food culture,” Neace says. “I live in Hazard. They rank towns around here as far as how many fast food restaurants it has. We have a Burger King, a McDonald’s, a Hardee’s and all. Culturally speaking, we have a lot against us.”

 (Photo by Cris Ritchie)

Sam Neace: ‘Wouldn’t it be kinda neat if the whole world was walking on the same day?’ (Photo by Cris Ritchie)

Despite the challenges, Neace believes it is the small things that lead to big changes over time.

“If we can get others to start doing the little things, it will make a difference there too. People tend to look at this like it is an overwhelming task,” he says. “The statistics are true, but they don’t reflect this place at all. There is a whole movement going on right now toward being healthier.”

Grow Appalachia, an organization funded by John Paul DeJoria, is helping community members throughout the Appalachian region learn how to plan, grow and harvest from community gardens. The program is also helping with funding and education and build monies for what are called High Tunnels, greenhouses that will allow a longer growing season, and will offer more “food security” for low income communities.

And that’s just one organization; there are multiple movements in the region. The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky gives a philanthropic push toward healthy community initiatives. A Hazard group called Pathfinders is dedicated to hiking, walking and healthy moving for all ages and has started work on a walking trail to benefit Perry County citizens.

Lott’s Creek Community School, an original settlement school, has joined with Grow Appalachia to help with 20 community gardens throughout the area. The Appalachian Regional Commission’s food tourism initiative, Bon Appetit Appalachia, has worked at providing an interactive map featuring nearly 50 Eastern Kentucky fresh and healthy food locations which should not only bring in tourism dollars, but is hoped to increase local awareness of good food choices.

As for Neace, he realizes his journey does, indeed, begin with a single step.

“I am a very imperfect person. If I can do anything, then anybody can. I’m just a regular guy. People need to know they are capable of doing these things if they just set their minds to it,” Neace says. “As far as the future of the Great Perry County Walk, I’m kinda the person who says, however healthy it can be, however big it can be, let’s make it that. Wouldn’t it be kinda neat if the whole world was walking on the same day?”

Kristy Robinson Horine is a freelance journalist who lives in Paris.

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