In an emotional presentation that brought many delegates to tears, NYSUT's 2008 Exemplary Community Service Award was presented Saturday to Chris Pendergast. A former Long Island teacher who suffers from ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig's disease – Pendergast has been a leader in the effort to find a cure and generate public awareness of the disease.
His efforts, which have raised more than $2 million, include "Ride For Life," an annual ride from Montauk Point to Manhattan. His initial Ride For Life campaign was a ride from Yankee Stadium to Washington, D.C
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said Pendergast's "single wave of activism has created a flood of activity to defeat ALS." He said NYSUT would increase its annual level of sponsorship of Ride For Life. Pendergast, now wheelchair-bound and no longer able to raise his arms, received an emotional reception by the delegates as he told them that while he may be increasingly physically diminished by the disease, like John Paul Jones "I've yet begun to fight ALS."
Pendergast was a teacher in Northport when he was diagnosed with ALS in 1993. He thanked his union president Bill Hall, "who believed in me before I did" for all his help. His wife, Christine, the former local president of Port Jefferson Station TA, stood by his side as she has ever since his diagnosis.
While some 5,000 Americans are struck down by the disease each year — and the life expectancy is less than five years — little progress has been made in finding a cure. "Where is the concern?" asked Pendergast. "Where is the demand for a cure?"
In thanking NYSUT for its support, Pendergast told the delegates that just as it takes a village to educate a child it also takes a village — in this case NYSUT and other unions — to cure a disease.