First responders raise cash to fight ALS: 'We've all experienced this disease together'

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LENOX — "Pull! Pull! Pull!"

The team of Pittsfield firefighters growled and leaned back on the rope with each coordinated tug. As they did, Otis firefighters' sneakers tore through Tanglewood's turf at the other side of a central sandy mound.

Dozens of police officers and firefighters from around the Berkshires pulled together for the tug of war competition on Saturday, a fundraiser organized by Lee Police Chief Jeff Roosa and retired Pittsfield deputy fire chief Mike Polidoro. Both have Lou Gehrig's disease and so banded together to help those next in line with the terminal illness.

The event had raised $52,000 by the end of the afternoon — double their $25,000 goal — and volunteers were still counting. The funds will help the ALS Therapy Development Institute in Cambridge reach for a cure for the disease known medically as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The event also served as an inaugural Arrest and Extinguish ALS event, which Roosa, Polidoro and organizers with the institute hope catches on with first responders across the nation.

"After seeing how successful this is, we're hoping it will kick off a huge national campaign," said TDI Development Director Terri Handler, while looking out at the crowd of more than 100 people.

"As you can see, this is a great community to start with," Handler said.

The Pittsfield Fire Department's "Wrecking Crew" team took several categories in the competition, as did a team tugging for the Sheffield Fire Department. Of the law enforcement divisions, the Berkshire County Police Chiefs took first place.

Lee Elementary School teachers past and present, Janet Warner and Jen Carlino, donned referee shirts as they judged the competition. "Jeff made me do it," Carlino said of Roosa. "And I cannot tell him no."

Lenox Police Chief Stephen O'Brien said he and other Berkshire officers and EMTs volunteered to staff the event. The Lenox Fire Department volunteered time cooking up burgers and hot dogs. Roosa said Tanglewood donated the space for the day, Mahaiwe Tent donated the tent and R.W.s Towing donated a trailer for the bands — all of which performed at no cost.

"It shows you how special the Berkshires are," State Rep. Smitty Pignatelli said. "When people hit a rough patch, we all come together for the greater good."

Sheriff Thomas Bowler said his office also volunteered for the event, because "why wouldn't we." Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said the event will "hopefully be the first of many."

"These two individuals are incredible," Bowler said, gesturing toward the nearby golf cart carrying Roosa and Polidoro.

Rep. Richard Neal came to show his support. "This is how we define community," he said while looking out at the tug of war in action.

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In Roosa and Polidoro's golf cart, parked mere feet away from the active competition, there was a different kind of push and pull going on.

The two love to banter about who's better: police officers or firefighters; the Red Sox or the Yankees.

"We finally found something we can agree on," Polidoro said. "We both don't mind the Bruins."

Roosa leaned back in his golf cart, checking the fundraiser tally and taking it all in.

"We've been good to people and they're being good back," he said.

Pittsfield's Deputy Fire Chief Matt Noyes noted the smiles on their faces. "That's the best part about today," he said, smiling himself.

Roosa's wife, Jen, said the community support has been unbelievable.

"It's hard for people like them to take support," she said, tearing up as she talked about Polidoro and her husband. "It's been a hard pill to swallow for both of them, I think."

A member of Roosa and Polidoro's support group for people with ALS, Jim Grimsley, wasn't able to make it to the event but sent a friend, John White, in his place. White said Grimsley wasn't doing well. "That's what the disease does," he said.

Polidoro's six sisters worked the event, collecting raffle money and selling t-shirts.

"Their brotherhood is keeping them going," Sharon Polidoro said of Roosa and her brother.

At the end of the event, Roosa and Polidoro doled out awards and gratitude.

"Family is everything; friends are everything," Polidoro said into the microphone. "We've all experienced this disease together."

And without their support, he said, "it would not be an easy journey."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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