VILNIUS - Expect traffic jams and malls emptied of shoppers curious to see what all the fuss is in Klaipeda this weekend. A determined crowd of runners, many of them boldly puffing on and others pausing for a quick breather, will worm its way toward the finishing line of the city's very first Fun Run.
The 9.9 kilometer run, due to start at 2 p.m. on May 11 at the IKI supermarket south of the city center, is to raise funds to build western Lithuania's first cancer help and advice center.
Organizers hope to raise awareness among the residents of Lithuania's third-biggest city of people suffering from the disease.
The Hope Run 2008 is divided into three distances. Runners aged 18-59 are encouraged to take part in the longer distance of 9.9 kilometers. Teens aged 15-17 and adults over the age of 60 can join a 6.6 kilometer run, while children up to the age of 14 can participate in a 3.3 kilometer run.
One of the promoters of the event is David Holliday, a retired wing commander in the British Royal Air Force and a former defense attache to Lithuania who now lives with his Lithuanian wife in a village near Klaipeda.
"The aim is to raise awareness in the community about cancer and the problems cancer sufferers and their families face in dealing with the disease," he explains. "We also want to raise money to help build a cancer day center."
A site has already been chosen for the much-needed West of Lithuania Cancer Help and Support Center, to be located close to Klaipeda's oncological hospital.
The Hope Run was planned 7 months ago. It is fully supported by the city's municipality. Besides IKI, the other starting points are the Akropolis shopping mall and Lietuvininku Square.
"The three starting points means that people can walk or run as much as they are able. We want this to be an all-inclusive Fun Run for all ages and all abilities. We are hoping to get 3,000 participants," said Holliday.
"Winning is not important. What is important is to be alive at the end and enjoy the company of friends and relatives," said Holliday, who promises that it will become an annual event at least for the next three years. This way, the new center will not run out of funds.
A group from the United Kingdom has already signed up for the run, including representatives from the Macmillan Cancer Trust and Cancer Choices in Northern Ireland.
The run will finish at the Klaipeda Estrada outdoor arena, and at 4 p.m. a live concert will start starring Lithuanian pop superstars Jurga and Amber Life and other big local names.
Fundraising is being tackled in a number of ways. Some Lithuanian companies have volunteered to help finance the event, while others have pledged an agreed sum for every participant who crosses the finish line.
"We are also offering another concept that is new to Lithuania, but which has been very successful for fundraising in other countries," said Holliday, pointing out that in the London marathon millions of pounds are raised each year by runners who invite friends and relatives to sponsor them.
"We want to attract not only regular runners and sports enthusiasts but more particularly those who are less fit, such as the young and the less physically able, even those who are sick but feel that they can walk just one of the three stages," he said.
"It is above all a fun run! We want this event to become a celebration of health, unity and solidarity for the people of Klaipeda, a day for the city to celebrate the joy of living," he said.
The project as a whole and the moving force behind the event is Brother Benediktas and his team from the Franciscan Monastery in Kretinga.
"Benediktas has worked tirelessly to bring it all together, but it hasn't been easy. Lithuanians are not used to this sort of action and do not easily part with their money, preferring to look to the state to fund such services," said Holliday.
"Attitudes are slowly changing. With the Hope Run, we just want to give it a bit of a push," he said.
Benediktas and other local organizers such as Aldona Kerpyte, director of the nascent cancer support center and a leader of community volunteers, hope that Lithuanian NGOs and self-help groups can start to emerge much as they have in the United Kingdom. These could really make a difference to the lives of families who are struggling to come to terms with the hard reality of cancer.