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July 9, 2009

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ALS a new challenge for peace activist

Christine Olige on a recent trip to Portland, Ore.

Christine Oliger was the first woman in her family to go to college. She majored in economics at Douglas College at Rutgers University, but a senior-year visit from a Peace Corps representative and a weak job market changed her path, taking her to Senegal and ultimately Chestnut Hill, and providing guidance for an unforeseen challenge. Last year, Oliger was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. In 2007, Oliger was running the National Havurah Committee office in Mt. Airy. In the fall she noticed that she could not keep her flip-flop on her left foot. By December she was having trouble walking long distances.

Oliger went to her doctor, who noticed she was having what is known in ALS terms as “foot drop” which is an ankle weakness that causes your foot to hang down when you are trying to walk. After months of tests, she was diagnosed in April 2008.

When we met for this interview, Oliger was walking with a walker, which she needs to get from her sofa to the door just 10 feet away. She and her husband of 10 years, Dion Lerman, moved from their house in Mt. Airy to a first-floor apartment in a carriage house on East Mermaid Lane.

It is difficult for Oliger to speak about the illness, which will eventually take her life. She has had to lean on her husband, an environmental health educator, her fellow Quakers (she is a member of the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, which is across the street from her apartment) and friends, who have organized a group – the Friends of Christine Oliger — to raise money to offset some of the expenses not covered by insurance.

With Oliger’s family dispersed around the country, she and her husband have had to accept the help of friends and acquaintances. Chris Robinson met Oliger protesting the Iraq war at the top of the hill in Chestnut Hill on Wednesday nights. When her symptoms started, she stopped going to the protests. Months went by before the two ran into each other at the grocery store. Oliger said it was awkward.

“I was walking with a cane at that point, and so he asked what was going on,” she said. “You never know how much to tell people.”

She ended up telling Robinson about her diagnosis and he offered to help with fundraising.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of work and help they’ve given,” said Oliger referring to the group that bears her name.

The Friends of Christine Oliger set up a Web site and started getting the word out. On July 12, the friends group is holding a benefit concert with musician Kenn Kweder at Walk A Crooked Mile Bookstore at the Mt. Airy train station. The proceeds will be used to purchase a wheelchair-accessible ramp. The ramp will cost about $2,200.

There is no treatment or cure for ALS, although Oliger is involved in a study that is trying to reproduce results from a study in Italy. For Oliger the uncertainty is both scary and comforting.

“You can know what to expect as far as progression,” she said. “But you just don’t know when you are going to hit those points.”

According to Oliger, ALS symptoms can also plateau at any time and for long periods of time. Unfortunately there is no way to know if that is going to happen. In the meantime Oliger spends her days working with committees from the Friends Meeting or rearranging her life to accommodate her new challenges. On the day we met, Oliger was busy making arrangements to get a new powered wheel chair. She is also working on fitting out a van she and her husband bought to make it wheelchair accessible and having a ramp installed to her front door.

Oliger, who was raised Protestant, first encountered Quakers working at what was then the Bucks County Peace Center.

“They had an amazing sense of grace and willingness to listen to everyone,” she said.

She started attending meetings in Bucks County. She met Lerman when he was leading workshops for people considering participating in civil disobedience. She took his workshop and learned that he needed people to lead more workshops. She signed up.

Oliger began her work with nonprofits and nonviolence after college. She entered the Peace Corps and was sent to Senegal.

“I always wanted to go to Africa, and the job market wasn’t good so I went,” she said of her decision to enter the corps.

Although Oliger, 43, would come back from Senegal early because of illness, she was profoundly influenced by her experience.

“I wanted to do something that would make a difference,” she said.

She went to work for the Bucks County Peace Center (now the Peace Center) a nonprofit aimed at reducing violence and conflict in schools, homes and communities.

“I found that these organizations that seek to change the world need money to do so,” she said. “So I started working on fundraising.”

Oliger said when she entered the nonprofit world she found a community of people who were dedicated and energized by the work they were doing.

“I met amazing people who had passion for their jobs,” she said.

Now that she is home, working on projects that relate to her illness, Oliger is reaping the rewards of years of contributing to others. One of the tenets of Quakerism that captured her spirit more than 17 years ago is the simple idea that everyone has a contribution to make.

These days Oliger can no longer go grocery shopping alone. She mentioned this to one of her friends and committee members. There is now a list of helpers and a schedule being created to take Oliger to the store when she needs to do her shopping.

For more information on ALS, visit www.alsa.org, or to find out more about the benefit concert visit www.friendsofchristine.com.



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