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Gesek Family: Have Cause, Will Travel
Tuesday, October 04, 2016 - by Marvin Pave

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In October 2015, Jeff Gesek was perusing the Standardbred Horse Sale Company’s “Black Book,” a listing of about 1,000 horses for the annual yearling sale in Harrisburg, Pa.

One name stood out: Mr Bill G.

“I wasn’t intending on buying this time around; I was just curious to see if I had recognized any mares that had yearlings in the sale,’’ said Gesek, who has purchased several Standardbreds over the past 25 years.

There was already an important Bill G. in Jeff’s life – his father, Bill Gesek, who has battled multiple sclerosis (MS) with courage and dignity for more than 30 years.

The connection on the page made an immediate impact. Jeff raced upstairs to the den at their home in Burlington, N.J., and told his wife, Janine, that this was more than a coincidence.

“I said, ‘Let’s put a bid on this horse,’” Jeff told his wife. “Janine told me, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If we win the bid, he paces for a cure for MS.’”

It was a moment that changed their lives, one that soon led to Jeff and Janine founding “Pacing for the Cure’’ and establishing a website (www.pacingforthecure.com). They chose maroon and gray as their branding colors -- the school colors at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, from which Bill and Jeff graduated.

The organization, which raises awareness and money for MS research, also supports families and individuals in the harness racing community affected by the disease in need of special equipment or just somebody to talk to about caregiving.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.

“To inspire others, to follow our journey with Mr Bill G, to create hope in finding a cure and to believe that he was born to pace for a cure,’’ is the central theme of their mission.

Photo courtesy Janine Gesek
Mr Bill G the man met Mr Bill G the horse at the Stafford Racing Stable barn in Delaware.

Bill Gesek requires a wheelchair, other medical devices and a specialty vehicle for transportation. He has been faithfully and lovingly cared for 24/7 by Barbara, his wife of 56 years, and his family.

The couple met at a polka dance in Bayonne, N.J., nearly 60 years ago.

Mr Bill G, a colt by Delmarvalous – Rafanelli, was purchased by Jeff and Janine in Harrisburg for $15,000 after the pacer was evaluated by Jody Stafford, Ben Stafford Sr. and the late Ben Stafford Jr. out of the Ben Stafford Stable in Felton, Del.

The week before the sale, the Staffords, who are like a second family to the Geseks, visited Mr Bill G at Winbak Farm in Chesapeake City, Md., where he was born March 24, 2014.

When he begins his racing career, probably by next spring, any earnings will support Pacing for the Cure.

“He was a big, good-looking horse and I said, ‘Wow, I think he may go for more than our limit,’” Jody Stafford said.

Ben Jr. made the successful bid in Harrisburg while Jeff Gesek watched the proceedings on video.

Last February, on a crisp and sunny day, Bill and Barbara Gesek, who reside in Mount Laurel, N.J., were driven to the Stafford Stable.

There, they met Mr Bill G, who was led out of his stall by Jody Stafford.

"It was one of those tug at your heart moments,’’ said Janine, who grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania where one of her passions was horses.

The Geseks work at Virtua Health System in Marlton, N.J.-- Jeff as a treasury specialist and Janine as an assistant vice president for clinical transformation.

As they posed for a photo taken by Janine, Bill Gesek maneuvered his wheelchair next to his wife. Barbara placed her right hand on the horse and draped her left arm around her husband’s shoulder as Jody looked on.

“I felt that Mr Bill G, who was amazingly calm and gentle, somehow sensed what this connection was all about,’’ Janine said. “It really touched me. There was a certain energy passed from Mr Bill G across to Bill through Barbara, the caregiver.”

Jeff Gesek said his father – who sold his share of a computer consulting firm in 1994 because of his illness -- felt that same sense of purpose and that Bill was pleased to see the Staffords, who have trained the Gesek family’s racehorses since 1990.

Jeff’s golfing connection with the late and former Philadelphia Flyers hockey star Rick MacLeish, who owned and raced Standardbred horses, led to his introduction to the Staffords.

“It was quite a surprise,” Bill Gesek said about first learning of his son and daughter-in-law’s new horse. “I thought they had changed his name, but they told me they didn’t have to. It’s amazing they would think of such a thing.

“I hope, someday, he makes enough money on the track to help people like myself.” He said his wife "suffers from MS, too, because she has to take care of me."

Barbara said her husband is "full in on accepting his lot in life. I have the energy and stamina to care for him and he has the resolve to handle not being able to care for himself."

During this year’s Standardbred Horse Sale, Jeff and Janine, whose sister, a primary care physician, is also battling MS, will host a Pacing for the Cure dinner Nov. 8 at the Best Western Hotel & Conference Center in Harrisburg. The Geseks will tell their story while reaching out to the harness racing community for support.

It is the latest in a series of awareness events and fundraisers that have included a Day at the Races at the Meadowlands in April, attended by Jeff’s parents and sister; an open house at Diamond Creek Farm in Pennsylvania in May and another Day at the Races at Scioto Downs in Ohio where an information table was set up and an Ohio resident with MS, Shannon, was honored.

Conrad photo
Jeff (far left) and Janine (second from right) Gesek honored Shannon (second from left), an MS sufferer, at a Pacing for the Cure event at Scioto Downs.

A Pacing for the Cure MS Walk and Day at the Races, a two-day event, was held at The Meadows honoring Polly, an MS survivor and starting gate driver, in August. Pacing for the Cure also made an appearance at the Open Space Pace at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey in September.

The money raised will be donated to two MS-related organizations: the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Multiple Sclerosis Research Institute.

“Basically, the national group concentrates on finding a cure through genetics and the MSRI is looking at the cellular level,” said Jeff. “Eventually we would also like to help out people who can’t afford the equipment needed to deal with MS, like vans, wheelchairs and walkers.”

Jeff’s mother appreciates the work done by her son and daughter-in-law, both for her husband and for MS sufferers everywhere.

“Jeff and Janine have full-time jobs and Bill and I are kind of stunned at what they’ve done," Barbara Gesek said. "We are touched and moved by them."

Jody Stafford said he has one wish: “To see both Bill Gs together in the winner’s circle someday."

How to Get Involved

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a debilitating disease of the central nervous system and affects approximately 2.5 million individuals worldwide. As the disease progresses, the medical equipment and device needs become more prominent for MS survivors to manage their daily living. The equipment is costly and is rarely covered by medical insurance.

Pacing for the Cure has joined forces with renowned MS researcher Dr. Jeffrey Greenstein, founder of the Multiple Sclerosis Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pa.

There are several ways for those in the harness racing industry to get involved:

*Multiple Sclerosis survivors may visit www.pacingforthecure.org to “tell us their story” under the “Journey” tab and be eligible for a lucky horseshoe or be a special guest honoree at a Pacing for the Cure event in your area.

*To donate, go to the website and click on the "donate’’ button, which will take you directly to the Pacing for the Cure secure online donation portal. Donations can be made by check payable to Pacing for the Cure. They can be mailed to: Pacing for the Cure, PO Box 1, Mount Laurel, NJ, 08054.

*Corporations considering annual sponsorship packages or funding individual events in a local community can contact Jeff and Janine Gesek at this e-mail address: sponsors@pacingforthecure.org.

*There are two annual fundraising events: the Harrisburg Yearling Sale Pacing for the Cure Dinner on Nov. 8 and a Pacing for the Cure Golf Tournament next spring, date and location to be announced.

The goal is to raise enough funds throughout the year to provide the necessary medical equipment and devices for MS survivors in need at one of these annual events.

*You can also visit the Pacing for the Cure Facebook page to comment, invite and share in upcoming events and help Jeff and Janine expand their support for MS survivors and their caregivers.

*Volunteers are needed at all levels of support including at events in your area. If interested, e-mail them at inquiry@pacingforthecure.org.

“We are extremely grateful," said Janine, "to all the wonderful people in the harness racing industry who have supported us as we’ve begun our journey to make a difference in the lives of MS survivors and caregivers.”

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.