On June 23rd, 2020 – the day her husband was diagnosed with ALS – Jen Yozwiak remembers there were a lot of questions running through her mind.

“In that moment, you're faced with: ‘oh, my gosh, I have a terminal diagnosis,’” she says.
 “My husband's young, my kids are young. What does this mean? What are we going to do? All of a sudden, your life just looks completely different than it did before.”

She wondered what this new life would mean for her family. Chris, her husband, was only 45 years old when he started experiencing ALS symptoms, and they have two young children, Brady (10) and Brooklyn(7). While Jen quickly turned to ALS advocacy to provide a sense of assistance to her husband, she worried about how growing up and watching their father’s illness progress would affect her kids.

Raking Leaves to Help End ALS

 “When you’re faced with something like this, and you have little kids, you ask yourself ‘how can we help them feel like they're doing something to help dad?” she says. “Then, my son, Brady, came up with this idea: ‘Hey, let's start a raking business.’ I said, ‘okay, that sounds good, what do you want to do with the money?’ What blew me away was that, at nine years old, he said: ‘Let's find a place that we can donate the money to that will help find a cure for dad.’”

Jen was already familiar with the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI) through the connections she had made in the ALS community. After researching the organization further, she and Brady decided it would be the best place for them to dedicate whatever money they could raise raking their neighbor’s yards.

“I saw so many people doing different fundraisers to benefit ALS TDI,” she says, “When I started to do my research, I loved the fact that it was started by a family that had a personal experience with their son and brother who had ALS. It's the only drug discovery lab that's just dedicated to ALS research.”

A Small Fundraiser Becomes a Big Deal

Jen and Brady’s project began simply. They named their raking business “Clayton Rakes,” after the name of their street. After four short weeks of planning, they gathered a group of Brady’s friends and began going through their town street by street. They would offer to rake their neighbors’ yards and ask for a donation in return. They made pages on social media to spread the word about their fundraiser throughout the town.

Soon, the word got out about Clayton Rakes and their mission to support ALS research at ALS TDI. What started as a small fundraiser quickly became something much, much bigger than Jen or Brady could have ever imagined. Within weeks their services were in such high demand that Jen had to organize other teams of local parents and kids to tackle different streets throughout the town. Unfamiliar Volunteers, and community members who had heard about their efforts, began showing up to help rake. Individuals, many of whom Jen says had themselves been affected by ALS or other debilitating diseases, would write them checks for far more than they anticipated­– as much as $1,000 for an afternoon of raking.

By the time they were done, the Clayton Rakes campaign had raised more than $60,000 dollars to support ALS research at ALS TDI. It was a number that would have seemed impossible when they first began raking yards around their neighborhood.

“It was so heartwarming and to see just the community rally around us,” Jen says. “It gives you hope that the world is still a really great place, and there’s a lot of amazing humans out there that still want to help.”

Going National as Rake for ALS

This coming fall, Jen is working with ALS TDI to bring the program national as Rake for ALS. Through this new program, people across the country will be able to organize teams to perform a service in their community – raking leaves or doing other kinds of yard work – to raise funds to support ALS research. While anyone can participate, Jen says she sees it as a great opportunity for people to bring a younger generation into the fight against ALS.

I think it's such a great opportunity for kids to get involved in philanthropy,” says Jen. “As adults, we do a lot of volunteering, but there's not a lot of opportunities for kids to be involved, and this provides an opportunity to do that.”

Involving kids in the program is very important to Jen. She says that, beyond all the money they raised and the phenomenon they created, the most important part of what Clayton Rakes was able to accomplishment was the feeling it gave Brady of being able to help people like his dad.

“At one point, Brady told me he didn’t think the $60,000 was going to be enough to save dad,” she says, “and it just breaks your heart. We talked about how it might not be in time for dad, but if we keep helping raise money for research, it will be in time for someone else. I think, as we are processing all of this and going through the grieving process, this is something that will help my children be part of their father and what he went through. Hopefully they'll be around to see a cure or a real viable treatment in their lifetime and I hope they can feel like we were part of it.”

To learn more about how you can participate in Rake for ALS, click here.

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