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Homeschoolers Help World-Famous Pianist Fight Cancer

By Chris Klicka
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #58, 2004.

Homeschoolers across the country join hands for a good cause.
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Chris Klicka

Martin Berkofsky, world-famous concert pianist. . .
You never know how your life will help someone else. Over this last summer homeschoolers in the Midwest have learned how God ministers to those who are willing to be used by Him.

Martin Berkofsky is a name many people will recognize: he is a world-famous concert pianist and recording artist. And now he is a passionate advocate of homeschooling.

In 2000, Martin was treated for cancer at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was able to overcome prostate cancer. As a method of speeding his recovery, Martin took up running. At first he was only able to go 100 feet before becoming completely breathless. He kept running, adding distance every day. "I was up to 10 miles a day after about 18 months," he says.

Martin decided that he needed to help in the battle against cancer. "Life sometimes gives us opportunities - singular and unusual - to live our finest moments, to show our finest for others rather than caring only for ourselves," he says, and he applied this philosophy in a very practical way.

. . .Running to benefit cancer research
Martin's treatment and victory over cancer changed his life. "I returned from CTCA with a new outlook on life. I came back with a conviction that caring works."

An idea had been forming in the back of his mind of a long-distance run with concerts along the way. The concert proceeds would go to the fight against cancer, and people would be able to sponsor him as he ran.

The run was a year in planning. It was scheduled for April through August of 2003. It would begin in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and take him through Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois, ending in Zion, Illinois, just north of Chicago - 860 miles in all.

Homeschoolers Get Involved

About a month before Martin's start date, my wife Tracy approached Martin so that he could give our daughter piano lessons. At the first lesson, Martin spent the first hour sharing his vision for his run. He showed them his "war room," as he called his dining room, which was covered with maps, letters, and promotional materials. Tracy mentioned that her parents live in Tulsa and that if there was anything she could do, she would be glad to help him.

Martin told her that he had plans to stay with host families along the way, but that his arrangements had not worked out. He was committed to keeping operational costs as low as possible so that virtually all of the donations could go straight to cancer research. He would not be followed by a "gadget-filled van," as he said, and planned to stay with individual families along the way.

Tracy felt very strongly that God wanted her to help out by contacting homeschoolers along Martin's route to secure host families for him. "God would open up the hearts of many, many families to answer the call to serve," she said. She contacted Joe and Linda Espositio, former homeschool leaders in Tulsa, and they graciously agreed to have Martin stay with them for several nights. Martin later told Tracy that he didn't have any other places lined up for him to stay. "He never complained or expressed concern about where he was going to lay his head at night," she said. She decided to contact other homeschoolers along his entire route so that he would have a place to stay each night.

Mapping Out Homeschoolers Along the Way

This began a very intense process of checking Martin's route, which was mapped out in 10-mile increments. Tracy was able to get in touch with homeschoolers through the homeschool contacts we have in our work with HSLDA. The state organization leaders gave names of local homeschoolers - many of them HSLDA members - along Martin's route. She contacted families and explained that she was looking for families who would be willing to house Martin for up to several nights and drive him to his starting point each morning. Dozens of families agreed to help, and each family she contacted gave her additional names to call.

Martin with the Klicka family
These arrangements took place less than a month before the starting date of the run. At one point Martin discovered that his Illinois map was marked out by kilometers instead of miles. In order to run the full 860 miles that he had committed to, he was forced to re-route the run through Illinois. This made it necessary to secure new hosts on a last-minute basis.

"God was so faithful to place Martin with families who would be openhearted and amicable, as well as praiseworthy examples of Christ-likeness," said Tracy, when talking about the homeschoolers who volunteered as host families. These last-minute arrangements certainly demonstrate the flexibility and hospitality of homeschoolers.

Martin with the Nisbett family
The Run Begins

The Celebrate Life Run began on April 9, 2003, which was Martin's 60th birthday. Tulsa mayor Bill LaFortune, staff members of CTCA, and friends (Tracy and several Klicka children among them) saw Martin off for his first 10 miles.

Martin faced many obstacles along the way. Some of the problems were not difficult and even humorous, such as when he encountered a loose bull on the road and a gruff policeman in Orland Park. Other obstacles were more serious. During the run Martin learned that his mother had been diagnosed with skin cancer, and he was forced to out-maneuver several tornados and hailstorms along the way. At nearly every stop Martin met someone whose life had been touched by cancer. Many people shared their personal survivor stories with him, while others told of losses in their lives.

On he ran. Each night his host family would pick him up, feed him and enjoy fellowship. The next morning they dropped him back off at the day's starting point. Martin moved slowly north, meeting new friends every few days.

Martin and Summer Lusk play a duet
Homeschoolers Open Their Homes

Martin stayed with the Nisbett family in Saint James, Missouri, members of the Home School Legal Defense Association. They helped him organize a concert at the University of Missouri at Rolla. In an entry on Martin's online journal, Mrs. Nisbett talked about Martin. "What an incredible person! Martin was extremely gracious." The Nisbetts were amazed that Martin didn't seem to mind sharing a bathroom with six children or putting up with the noise and activity that occurs in a family of eleven. They told how after meals Martin cleaned the table and loaded the dishwasher. "I've never had my kitchen cleaned by a concert pianist," said Mrs. Nisbett. "He was so cheerfully flexible, even doing a live radio interview sitting on top of the dryer in our basement, one of the few quiet solitary places."

The Dahl family in Springfield, Illinois (HSLDA members) not only kept Martin, but they also welcomed the film crew from CTCA and made homemade pizza for everyone. Linda Dahl commented on Martin's integrity in running the full distance he had committed to run. "Martin is a man of character. His honesty especially is very obvious. When I dropped him off to begin his run the first day we met a local TV crew who interviewed him. They met him about one block beyond where he was to begin and he insisted on backtracking in order to completely cover the route. When my husband dropped him off at the start point the next day the documentary crew was with him. They had him running here and there to get it all on film but it wasn't exactly where he was supposed to run. Again he insisted on running the route as marked even though he had probably already run close to an extra mile."

The Kramer family in Carlinville, Illinois housed Martin and were impressed by his humility. "He is a famous, accomplished musician," said Vanessa Kramer, "and yet he doesn't put on any airs. He was willing to help with anything that needed to be done." Mr. and Mrs. Kramer drove to Evanston, Illinois to attend Martin's last concert in Illinois. "He greeted us like old friends. At the concert intermission he had a pizza in his dressing room. He insisted on sharing the pizza with my husband. So there we were in his dressing room with Martin and Lee eating pizza and talking like old friends."

HSLDA members Don and Angela Lusk of Bloomington, Illinois, hosted Martin and were treated to a private concert. Martin accompanied Summer Lusk's violin. "Our piano had never been played like that before!" says Angela. Another host family and HSLDA member in Bloomington, the Hedding family, commented on Martin's playing. "It's one thing to listen to a CD of classical piano music. It's quite another thing to listen to an actual concert pianist play beautiful music on your piano in your living room (and have your breath taken away), and then the next minute just visit with him like a normal person and sharing a bowl of ice cream with him."

Martin in Monroe, IL
Dave and Bernetta Johnson of Morris, Illinois, (former HSLDA members) were able to teach Martin how to shell home-grown popcorn. He found this to be challenging. "We can still hear his chuckle each time some kernels would fly off, miss the bowl, and bounce across the floor," said Dave. The Johnsons had a lot of fun with Martin. "One of the qualities that endeared us to Martin was his appreciation for laughter. He spoke many times of the healing power of laughter; how during his treatment, he and his fellow patients would gather for comic pranks, slapstick humor, and even to parody their own condition." Not only did the Johnson family enjoy popcorn and laughter with Martin, but they were able to share about deep spiritual issues and discuss Christianity.

As these families ministered by opening their homes to Martin, they found that he, in turn, was a blessing to them. His hosts had nothing but the best to say about him. Several said that he had become as close as a family member in the time that he stayed with them. Martin's heart is to care about people. As he says in an entry in the Celebrate Life journal, "Too many times it is too easy to take the 'what's in it for me' attitude, thinking only of our own comfort, our security, our possessions, our pleasures, or worse, our bank accounts; rather than thinking seriously of our responsibilities, promises, or honor in our relationships with other people."

Martin was able to raise $80,687 dollars for cancer research from his Celebrate Life Run. The run, which lasted nearly four and a half months, covered 880 miles. Martin's humility in talking about this is evident: "In reflection of not just this experience, I came to understand that each time that God had decided that I needed to learn, to experience, to assess, to grow, to become a better person and to become a better artist, He gave me a great gift."

Martin sang the praises of homeschoolers all along the way to the various media outlets that interviewed him. In talking about the people with whom he stayed, Martin said, "I met and was befriended by the best kinds of people I had ever known; people of principle, people of kindness and generosity, people of truth, and people of faith and belief who opened their hearts to share all. People who were the future of this world."

Martin arrives at the Cancer Research Center in Barrington Hills, IL
After the run was completed, Martin remarked, "I had the rare privilege of meeting some of the best people I have ever met through the home schooling network. These are people who live by the principles of solidity and generosity; people who are willing open their hearts to a perfect stranger and to share their lives. What a revelation to know there are so many people like this out there. What marvelous people!"

Martin was able to meet scores of homeschooling children, and he affirmed the power of homeschooling: "I have never met more well-adjusted kids in my life. The whole thing is principle based. 100 percent of them are 100 percent."

While the real credit goes to Martin for overcoming cancer, completing his run, and raising the money in the process, homeschoolers all along the way were able to have a part in this ministry.

The families who were involved in caring for Martin are to be commended for their hospitality. "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrews 13:2).

To read Martin's day-by-day journal and learn how you can help donate, be sure to check his website: www.CelebrateLifeRun.com.

Planning Future Runs

Martin is so excited about the impact of homeschooling in America that he wants to do additional runs for homeschooling causes. He is talking with HSLDA about doing four 100 miles runs to raise money for the Homeschooling Foundation. HSLDA is thankful for Martin Berkofsky's willingness to help homeschoolers in need.

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