Anne and Emily were just distant cousins who needed each other for like-minded chitchat at family weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Anne lived in Cleveland with her family, Emily in Pennsylvania with hers. But today, Emily Popkin, a 30-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis [MS] now living in Seattle, depends on the love and commitment of her cousin Anne Dettelbach as well as other faithful volunteers at the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Washington for support, help and an ongoing vision of hope.
Dettelbach, 31, who had relocated to Seattle before her cousin moved here, works as an associate environmental analyst with Ross and Associates in Seattle. Her job as a liaison working with public agencies to understand and interpret the Clean Water Act, as well as assisting them in managing change and improving on their environmental programs, is in line with some of her strongest Jewish values. But outside of her work life, Dettelbach has also excelled as the No. 1 fund-raiser for the MS Society for the last three years, raising money from the society’s largest yearly event, the MS Walk.
And it’s all because of Emily, her distant cousin, who was struck with MS at the age of 26. Emily went from being a strong young woman involved in all of the usual activities of life to someone who needed more and more assistance in her daily activities. Dettelbach and her cousin were roommates for four years in Seattle and it was only because Emily became too ill and needed enhanced care that Dettelbach moved into her own place. But she was not about to drop the deep friendship they had developed. There was absolutely no question in Dettelbach’s mind that she was going to be there for her cousin, to help contribute anything and everything that she could. While continuing to work a full-time job, she spends about 24 hours a week with her cousin and stays overnight a couple of times a month.
“The only reason I got involved in the national MS Walk is because I wanted to show support for Emily,” said Dettelbach, in her office in the Art-Deco–style Seattle Tower building in downtown Seattle. “It’s a very horrible disease. Emily didn’t want people to see her as a charity case. She’s 26 and she is struck with this degenerative neurological disease. Her decline has been fast. If the disease is bad enough, you can become bedridden.”
In 1998, Dettelbach raised nearly $6,000. That was more than anyone had ever collected in the individual category. The next year, she raised $10,000 and again accrued the largest sum of money of any individual that year. This year, Dettelbach, who raised $16,000, became the top fund-raiser in all categories.
“I had about 100 people writing me checks,” said Dettelbach. “I used solicitations by
E-mail and my mother had taken a letter that I had written for my own solicitations and sent it to her friends. I received mostly $25 and $50 checks. But I do have a secret donor, someone who prefers to remain unnamed, who matches every donation that I get.”
Giving, and giving generously, a strongly held value in Jewish communal life, was passed on to Dettelbach from her parents, John and Cindy [the latter is the editor of the Cleveland Jewish News] and from her congregation in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which, according to Dettelbach, is a very warm, highly philosophical, highly intellectual congregation.
“We were taught Jewishness vs. Judaism, all the good things about being Jewish. It was a very primary part of our upbringing and a very Jewish way of looking at the world and interacting with people. We were always taught that it was important to be generous and to give, to reach out to others and to help people. I can’t write a $15,000 check to the MS Society but this is something I can do,” Dettelbach said.
In the past, Dettelbach has volunteered for other organizations more closely aligned with her environmental concerns. She imagines that it would also be possible for her to focus on fund-raising for Jewish organizations in the future. But for now, she is following her heart and the needs of those she loves.
“We’re absolutely dear friends,” said Dettelbach, “but Emily needs more support than I can provide. None of us are used to seeing a 30-year-old struggling to do things that the rest of us take for granted. It takes a lot of time but this is important to me. I stuck by Emily when she had to have an operation. I went to the hospital and brought her gifts. I haven’t let Emily go. I would love to do more with the MS Society in the future. I mean, it’s good to have fun (in your life) but it’s also good to give back.”