Ethel Hamburger has always relied on the kindness of strangers.
After almost a year of writing letters, hanging posters, handing out pamphlets and calling up everyone she knows — plus plenty of people she doesn’t — Hamburger, 82, is expecting 500 people at the benefit race www.martinsrun.org she’s hosting this weekend to raise money for a dementia wing at Martins Run retirement community, where she lives.
She’s already collected $15,000, plus donations of food and prizes, and even got a professional disc jockey for free (it helps that he’s her grandson).
“Martins Run is very much in need of a dementia unit, but it’ll cost about $6 million to build,” says Hamburger. “My pipe dream is that we’ll find someone who wants to donate all the money. But in the meantime, I thought a run would be a good start.”
Not Her First Gig
This isn’t the first time Hamburger has drawn a community together. In the early ’70s, Hamburger, a teacher, was living in Chevy Chase, Md., and spending summers at the family farm in rural West Virginia with her four children. Her husband, Irvin, an engineer at the Pentagon, commuted down on weekends.
A widow and her young son lived on a neighboring farm. Paying them a visit one day, Hamburger learned that the son — a would-be avid bookworm — was reading the same book over and over. It was the only one he had.
“The closest library was on the other side of the mountain, and they didn’t have a car or any means of getting there,” says Hamburger. “That’s when I thought, ‘Well, let me see what I can do about that.’ ”
She started writing letters. Soon she was driving all over the state to pick up book donations, and boxes of books were being left on her porch.
When Hamburger had given more books to the local schools than they knew what to do with, she got to work setting up a library in a nearby community center.
Friends of friends donated lumber for bookshelves. Hamburger contacted Jennings Randolph and Robert Byrd, the U.S. senators for West Virginia, who got the Library of Congress to pitch in with even more books; she asked Jay Rockefeller (then West Virginia’s secretary of state, now one of the state’s U.S. senators) to show up at the library dedication.
And then Hamburger thought, “Shouldn’t we have a summer reading program?” So she set that up, too.
After Irvin retired in 1993, the Hamburgers moved to Elkins Park, and then, in 2007, into Martins Run in Media.
Right away, Hamburger organized an elaborate birthday party for the centenarians there.
“She’s one of a kind,” says Lorraine DellaFranco, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Martins Run. “To come across another person with such compassion for others is rare, but at the end of the day, it’s her ability to take command …that truly makes her an exceptional leader.”
When Hamburger heard staff at Martins Run discussing the need for a dedicated dementia unit, her next project was born.
The Martins RUN Intergenerational 5K to Defeat Dementia is taking place at Ridley Creek State Park on Oct. 3. The main event starts at 9 a.m., with prizes for the top racers in seven different age groups, from 11 through 60-plus.
Podiatrist Eric Ricefield, a regular visitor to Martins Run, is one of the run’s sponsors. He’ll be on hand in case “anybody has any foot questions or problems,” according to Hamburger.
As for her, she’s set on participating: “I consider it the inaugural run — I plan to do it every year, however long it takes.”