Bob Mandera Walks to Support Diabetes
In honor of Diabetes Forecast magazine’s 70th anniversary, we’re kicking off a series of profiles about people whose lives have been touched by diabetes—and who have touched the diabetes community. Here, meet a father whose focus is on defeating diabetes.
Bob Mandera has spent 40 years walking the walk. Ever since his daughter, Pam Phelan, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1976, Mandera has led the Veterans’ March for Diabetes, a yearly three-day trek from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh to raise money—more than $2 million over four decades—for the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
It all started with Mandera’s desire to help his daughter manage her diabetes. He initially joined the ADA for information about diabetes, but he soon found himself thinking much bigger. “I decided I was going to do something to try and find a cure,” says Mandera, 72. At the time, he was a regular participant in a 26-mile fundraising walk for March of Dimes, a charity that raises money to reduce the number of premature births and to care for infants who are born prematurely. He wondered if he could create a similar event to raise money for the ADA.
Mandera first sought out support. The local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the National Association of Letter Carriers (Mandera worked as a letter carrier after leaving the military), and the Comfort Inn in Mercer, Pennsylvania, all donated money or services. And a friend who had joined Mandera on walks in the past strode beside him on this journey, too.
“We left Pittsburgh and walked for three days with knapsacks on our backs [containing] whatever we needed,” he says. The pair rested nightly at hotels along the route, and continued walking again each morning. The walk ended in Erie, about 115 miles north of Pittsburgh, and raised around $2,000.
But Mandera thought they could do better. “We reached the finish line and there was no one there. It wasn’t a very big ending,” he says. “So the next year, we reversed it and walked from Erie [to Pittsburgh].” As the walk grew, several of his fellow VFW members—some of whom had children with diabetes—joined him. The VFW also supplied a van that would follow the walkers, carrying supplies and checking up on them in case of emergency.
Changing the route drew more spectators, a trend that continued each year Mandera organized the walk: “A lot of years there would be over 100 people at the finish line,” Mandera says. More organizations and companies began to offer matching funds for donations, while hotels and restaurants along the route offered the walkers meals and lodging for free.
Mandera walks to hear, and share, the stories of people with diabetes. The walk has given him some memorable chances to commemorate their lives. “I knew this gentleman from the VFW whose grandson was diagnosed with diabetes at 9 months old,” he says. “We dedicated the walk to him that year.” At the end of the walk, Mandera carried the baby across the finish line. “That was so great,” he says.
Mandera and his fellow walkers sometimes meet people with diabetes on the trail as well. Once, the walkers and their support van were stopped by a group of firefighters who had cordoned off the road due to a fire nearby. But when one of the firefighters saw the Veterans’ March for Diabetes magnets on the van, he said, “For this cause, anything,” Mandera remembers. “He’d had a pancreas and kidney transplant.” The firefighters let the walkers through. On another walk, an 8-year-old girl and her family met the walkers just outside of Erie after hearing about them on the local news. “She said, ‘Thanks for walking for me—I have diabetes’ and gave us $5,” Mandera says. “All the guys were in tears.”
Mandera’s passion for the cause also led him to become the diabetes chair for his VFW post, where he worked to help his fellow veterans prevent or manage diabetes. He was soon promoted to run the VFW’s diabetes programs throughout the state of Pennsylvania. “Twenty-five percent of veterans have diabetes,” Mandera says. “When we had veterans’ conventions, I’d say that everyone in this auditorium knows someone who has diabetes. That’s how serious it is.”
Although health problems have prevented Mandera from walking in the event for the past 15 years, he doesn’t plan to stop hosting the walk any time soon. (The next Veterans’ March for Diabetes will be held in October.) “I still hope for a cure,” he says. “We’re still going to keep raising money.” He’s also been encouraged by the many advances in diabetes care that have come out of ADA-funded research. “Complications are lower. Fewer people are dying from it. … [Even] if we don’t have a cure, things are going to get a lot better,” he says, with conviction. “[Diabetes research] has come so far in these years, and we know it’s worth it.”
Support the Cause
To donate to the walk, which benefits the American Diabetes Association, mail a check (payable to Erie Diabetes Walk) to Veterans of Foreign Wars, Department of Pennsylvania, 4002 Fenton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17109.