By Bill Burt
---- — Sen. Barry Finegold has done the local charity circuit with the best of them.
He’s walked to combat hunger. He’s run for the homeless. He’s golfed for scholarships.
Basically, if some local event benefits his constituents in his native Andover and surrounding towns, Finegold has probably been there and done that.
But this weekend’s charity event is different. This has nothing to do with public service and handshakes.
This is for his older sister, Joni Finegold-Sachs, who passed away at age 42 from a lengthy, 18-month bout with cancer on July 26, 2012.
This one is personal.
“Joni was the bright one in the family,” Finegold said. “She was in the Foreign Service at age 22, which made her one of the youngest ever. She served the country in some hot spots like Belfast (Northern Ireland) and Bogota (Colombia). She was around armored cars and bombs.
“But most of all, she was a great sister, wife and mother. She was full of life. She was the one always cracking jokes. She was a great person and I miss her dearly. It still is very surreal to me.”
Finegold’s sister lived just outside Washington, D.C., with husband Daniel, and their daughters, Lillian, 12, and Maisey, 7.
A few months after her death, Finegold was talking to his younger sister, Diana, who lives in New York City, about doing something on Joni’s behalf.
The Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, which consists of riding 200 miles over two days, seemed like the perfect event in her honor. Since 1980, the PMC has raised $338 million, all of which goes directly to cancer research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. This year’s installment is set for Saturday and Sunday.
“I had always seen the race from afar and heard about people I know participating,” Finegold said. “Your immediate reaction after losing someone you love is, ‘What can I do?’ We realized this race benefits Dana-Farber, which was very helpful to my sister.”
Of course, there was one minor issue, at least for Finegold.
He hadn’t been on a bike since he was about 10 years old.
“I had the black Huffy Bike like all of the other kids,,” he said. “But since then, I had not been on a bike. I’m not kidding.”
So he went to Buchika’s Ski and Bike Shop in Salem, N.H., and bought a bike.”
While he is in tip-top shape as a regular at Walter Norton’s IPF workout facility in Andover, he quickly learned cycling isn’t as easy as it looks.
“I’ve run road races like the Feaster Five and I work out at IPF as often as I can,” Finegold said. “But I learned it’s not easy sitting on a seat for an hour or two. And it takes some energy trying not to get hit by cars.”
Sister Diana Finegold, who will be doing the Pan-Mass Challenge with him, said that training for the race has changed her life in ways she never imagined, including the connection she has made with her brother.
“Training for this ride has been such an uplifting experience, not only because it’s introduced me to the world of biking and the physical challenge that goes into training for a ride like this,” Diana Finegold said.
“But the solidarity of doing this with my brother to raise money for a cancer institute that was insurmountable in their support and care for our sister in trying to do everything they could to help her fight this disease and extend her life as long as they did with cutting-edge treatment.”
Last Sunday, Sen. Finegold rode 56 miles through North Andover, Boxford and Georgetown, and he recalled a few times when he felt like taking a long break.
But he didn’t.
“When I struggled a bit, I would think of Joni and her fight, and sure, I got a little emotional,” he said. “But it’s amazing the strength I got from her and always will get from her.”
Joni’s presence has been in Andover the last month as her two daughters are staying with Finegold’s parents, Mike and Sondra.
“We celebrated Maisey’s seventh birthday the other day,” the state senator said. “It really stunk that Joni wasn’t there. It’s cruel. It really is.”
But it is impressive to see a brother and sister doing their part to make a difference.
Donations on behalf of Sen. Barry Finegold and Ana Finegold can be made online at http://www2.pmc.org/profile/BF0135 or by mailing a check payable to the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, to Sen. Finegold, 34 Essex St., Andover 01810.
What is the PMC?
Presented by the Boston Red Sox Foundation and New Balance, the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge is the nation’s original fundraising bike-a-thon. Today, it raises more money than any other athletic fundraising event in the country. Since 2007, the PMC has donated 100 percent of every rider-raised dollar directly to cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through its Jimmy Fund. The PMC has contributed $375 million to life-saving cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute since its 1980 inception.