Sunshine on a cloudy day

Diane Maier (right) greets Joan Zucker, mother of the late Suzy Esstman,during Hadassah’s ‘Walk on Sunshine.’ Maier was a co-founder of the walk.

By Hannah Boxerman, St. Louis Jewish Light

Despite a slightly overcast sky, Queeny Park radiated with sunshine Sunday morning as Hadassah held its eighth annual “Walk on Sunshine” to benefit brain tumor research.

Families with dogs walked through the park, which was decorated with balloons; music played over a DJ’s speakers; donated items in bright bags were raffled and Ben & Jerry’s offered free ice cream to walkers who began their route at the playing of the song “Walking on Sunshine.” The atmosphere was fun and sunny, emulating the vision of Suzy Esstman, an active community member who planned the walk after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2004.

Esstman was highly involved in the St. Louis community; she worked with organizations like the Jewish Community Center, Hadassah and Parkway School District, and volunteered with the American Cancer Society and her sorority, Delta Gamma.

Event co-founder and close friend Diane Maier recalled that when Esstman learned of her diagnosis, she immediately felt a call to action.

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“At that time she said, ‘I really think we should have a walk,’” Maier said. “She was just one of those balls-of-energy people.”

Randee Steffen, who co-chaired this year’s event, said that such an approach with an emphasis on the positive was characteristic of Esstman.

“Suzy had an incredibly outgoing personality and was very focused on helping others, doing whatever she could do to put the needs of others before her own,” Steffen said. “That was always her focus.”

Maier said Esstman chose to manage the proceeds from Walk on Sunshine through Hadassah because of her involvement with the organization and the strides that Israeli doctors were making in diagnostic tools and healthcare for brain tumor patients. She said a particular triumph was the development of a blood test that could aid in tumor detection.

The American Brain TumorAssociation has estimated that there are more than 688,000 people in the United States living with a brain tumor diagnosis. It was partly the prevalence of the issue, Steffen said, that spurred on the efforts for Walk on Sunshine.

“Suzy was concerned with ‘What can we do to make things better for other people going through what I’m going through?’’ Steffen said.

When Esstman passed away in 2007, Maier rallied her friends to continue the walk in her honor. However, Maier said, it was important to Esstman that the walk not have a somber tone after she was gone.

“Suzy always said, ‘There has to be music, there has to be ice cream.’ She wanted a party atmosphere with big energy, but people not forgetting the cause,” Maier said. “We’re carrying on her vision—that’s why the event is so important. Everybody’s smiling and laughing, there’s nothing down or sad because that’s not what she wanted.”

Maier said that through a new sponsor, St. Louis University, and a new program that offers the chance for individual sponsorships for runners, the most recent walk exceeded the revenue raised in 2012. She also stressed that although Walk on Sunshine is held in Esstman’s honor, the cause and walk itself are universal.

“We’re so open to anybody joining us—any color, any faith, anything. They’re so welcome,” she said. “A few years ago we changed our T-shirts and started asking people to put names on them, either to remember these people or in honor of the fact they were fighting [a brain tumor]. The list is just mind-boggling. Everyone I talk to knows one person at least with a brain tumor.”

Andrew Esstman, Suzy’s son, said that he hoped Walk on Sunshine’s influence continues to grow to reach anyone interested in the cause.

“I hope that we continue to bring people from all walks of the St. Louis community together, not just the Jewish community or people who knew my mom,” he said. “I want more than anything to see our outreach continue to spread.”

However, those that knew Esstman say Walk on Sunshine will always remain personal to them because her personality shines through each walk.

“This is something that’s ongoing and living; she’s no longer here but her cause and her purpose still is,” said Kim Dressel, who walked in this year’s event with her family.

“I love it. I love just coming out and walking,” she added. “I love that there are dogs and families and friends and strangers. It is a walk on sunshine—just a bright spot of my spring.”

Steffen said that brightness is exactly was what Suzy would have wanted.

“For Suzy, the walk was all about sunshine, about bright colors,” Steffen said. “We’re enjoying nature, we’re enjoying each other, always focusing on the positive.

“Suzy said that you always have two choices: You can go down or you can go up. With this walk, we go up.”